No Relief From The O’s Pen

In relatively predictable fashion, the Orioles bullpen blew a 6-0 lead in Boston last night. While their 5.09 ERA isn’t quite the worst in the majors, it’s pretty darn close. Many people expected the pen to be a strength for the team coming into the season – I thought they’d be OK, if not great – so what’s going on?

The main culprit? The home run ball. O’s relievers are giving up 1.7 HR/9, which is far and away the worst mark in baseball. This is coming despite a relatively average groundball rate – the problem is that almost 16% of flyballs have left the yard, which is not only the highest figure in the majors but is almost twice the league average.

The primary victim was Josh Rupe, who got taken deep 5 times in 14.1 innings before being sent to the minors. Every single reliever, though – not counting Brad Bergesen’s 2 IP – has given up a home run. Given that they only have 129 IP combined, I think it’s very likely that much of that is the result of some bad luck. Even if the unit were to end up towards the higher end of the spectrum, we’re talking more a 10-11% HR/FB rate and not 50% above that.

Beyond the home runs, the O’s relievers are striking out a decent, if unspectacular, number of batters (7.5 K/9), but still walking too many (4.3 BB/9). Their FIP (5.16) matches up with their ERA, but once you normalize the home run rate you get something a full run better. A 4.11 xFIP is still below average, but it’s a whole heck of a lot better than they’ve looked so far.

Here are the individual pitchers:

Jim Johnson 22.0 8.2 2.1 1.2 4.09 3.57 2.80 0.2
Koji Uehara 17.0 10.1 2.7 1.6 2.65 3.87 3.36 0.1
Brad Bergesen 2.0 9.0 0.0 0.0 0.00 0.93 1.51 0.0
Kevin Gregg 15.1 7.0 7.0 0.6 3.52 4.56 5.15 -0.1
Chris Jakubauskas 7.1 4.9 4.9 2.5 7.36 7.02 4.90 -0.1
Jason Berken 15.1 8.8 4.7 1.8 5.28 5.08 4.13 -0.1
Clay Rapada 6.0 10.5 6.0 3.0 10.50 6.93 3.76 -0.2
Mike Gonzalez 12.2 8.5 3.6 2.1 8.53 5.30 3.78 -0.2
Jeremy Accardo 17.0 5.3 6.4 1.1 4.76 5.58 5.42 -0.2
Josh Rupe 14.1 4.4 3.8 3.1 5.65 8.16 4.76 -0.4

Koji, as expected, has been quite good. Jim Johnson, as well, even if some fans don’t appreciate it. Jason Berken’s walk rate is partially the product of two intentional walks (it’s 3.5 BB/9 otherwise), and he’s been bitten by the home run bug somewhat. That groups has an ERA and FIP around 4.00, and an xFIP down at 3.35. They formed the base of the O’s pen coming into this year, and are making less than $4.5 M combined. While not a top flight crew, I’d be comfortable enough with them taking innings 7, 8, and 9 for a team that’s hoping to just get to .500.

Kevin Gregg is making $5 M, and has been pretty bad. His strike-out rate is down, and his walks are way up. He’s obviously not been as good as his ERA, but I don’t think he’s as bad as his xFIP suggests. Which is perfectly fine for a middle reliever. But Gregg was signed to be the proven veteran closer, and he’s blown 30% of his save opportunities.

At least the O’s didn’t have to give up a draft-pick to sign Gregg, like they did with Mike Gonzalez (who’s also making $6 M). Other than the home runs and his .381 BABIP against, Gonzalez has actually pitched OK. Walking fewer batters, still getting some punch outs… I think his ERA will be coming down, even if not quite all the way to his 3.78 xFIP. Which is perfectly fine for a middle reliever. But Gonzalez was signed to be the proven veteran closer (for 2010), and he’s blown 3 of his 4 save opportunities in his time in Baltimore.

The(/A) lesson? It’s much cheaper and often easier to turn OK starting pitchers into quality relievers than it is to pay free agents with decent but spotty track-records. Perhaps with Brian Matusz coming back, we may see that once again with Chris Tillman or Brad Bergesen (I’d say the latter has done more to earn a rotation spot). And then with Gregg and Gonzalez moving towards their expected levels of production and perhaps Alfredo Simon (another mediocre starter turned hard-throwing reliever) returning to the majors, I think the Orioles bullpen will end up closer to average than worst in baseball.

Also, though obviously you can point to individual games like yesterday’s, in the aggregate the O’s bullpen has only been somewhere between replacement level (brWAR) and a win below replacement level (fWAR). Compared an to average pen that might switch them from a couple game below .500 to maybe one above, but the fan frustration level is probably disproportionate to the actual damage done.

Stats: ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/9 & BB/9, HR/FB, BABIP, WAR