In their unexpected run to the playoffs last season, the Orioles were historically good in one-run games, winning more than 76 percent of them. Their bullpen was among the best in the majors -- and among the best in franchise history -- as relievers went 32-11 with 55 saves and a 3.00 ERA as the Orioles won 93 games.
The Orioles ranked fifth in ERA and also finished fifth in WHIP with 1.21 walks and hits per inning. They somehow did it without striking out a lot of batters, as they ranked 28th with 7.49 strikeouts per nine innings.
Jim Johnson, Darren O’Day and Luis Ayala each had one of the best seasons in their careers. Pedro Strop and Troy Patton were reliable relievers. And former starters Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter played key roles down the stretch. Heck, even slugger Chris Davis gave the Orioles two scoreless innings of relief at one point.
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Those remarkable performances coupled with a tiresome workload for the bullpen -- the Orioles got 545.1 innings from their bullpen, which was fourth-most in the majors -- has fueled outside concern that the bullpen will come crashing back to the bottom of the pack this season.
These guys can’t actually do it again, can they?
You can probably go case-by-case with their relievers and come up with a reason why each might experience regression this season. But looking at some of the best bullpens the past three seasons, more often than not they have still been pretty productive the year after ranking among the league’s top five bullpens in ERA.
From 2010 to 2012, only three teams that ranked in the top five in bullpen ERA the previous season finished in the bottom half of the league in that category, with each adding at least four-tenths of a run to their ERA.
Those teams are the 2010 Los Angeles Dodgers (3.14 ERA in 2009 to 4.07 in 2010), the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays (3.33 in 2010 to 3.73 in 2011), and the champion 2012 San Francisco Giants (3.04 in 2011 to 3.56 in 2012).
Six of the 15 teams I looked at finished in the top five again the following year and eight were in the top 10.
Of course, each team, each reliever, and each situation is unique, and while much more advanced statistical research may suggest that the Orioles are in for a significant decline, there is no real way of predicting for sure.
Well, unless you put Nate Silver on the job, maybe.
There should be caution with the workload of guys like Johnson and O’Day, who are being eased back into action this spring. There should be concern over the bullpen's lack of strikeouts, because no question the ball often bounced their way a season ago. And there should also be the acknowledgement the team’s historic record in one-run games last season was something special, but it was also something that is highly unlikely to be replicated.
Still, you can’t take away what the Orioles bullpen did last season. And the gang is all back together at the start of 2013. They might not all pitch like they did a year ago, but collectively, they still can be pretty good.