Orioles bullpen a candidate for regression after strong 2016 campaign

This month in baseball free agency saw, among other things, the relief market shake out with both the top end and middle tier of relievers signing. The San Francisco Giants walked away with closer Mark Melancon, the New York Yankees brought back Aroldis Chapman and the Los Angeles Dodgers re-signed Kenley Jansen.

Before that, the Chicago Cubs traded for Wade Davis and after it, the Miami Marlins signed a few mid-tier relievers. But save for the re-signing of Logan Ondrusek, the Orioles have been quiet in adding to their already-strong bullpen. Now that we know the backbone of almost every other bullpen, though, we can see how what the Orioles are bringing back can stack up.


By FanGraphs' projections, the Orioles' returning bullpen — which ended 2016 as the best in the American League and third best in baseball by ERA — is projected to produce the ninth-highest wins above replacement (WAR) as a collective in baseball in 2017. That measure in 2016 saw the Orioles produce 5.5 WAR from their bullpen, all without much from Darren O'Day but with career years from Zach Britton and Brad Brach.

In 2017, the underlying statistics expect that group to be worth over a full win less, with a 4.0 projected combined WAR. So as with everything, the Orioles will have to outperform their expectations, even in an area perceived as a strength, to get where they want to go.

And like all the rest of the pessimism that Orioles fans rail against, this one is founded. It's just as likely Britton will revert to his 2015 form (36 saves with a 1.92 ERA) as his 2016 form (47 saves with a 0.54 ERA), with the former worth 2.1 WAR and last year worth 2.5. His projection for 2017 is, coincidentally enough, 2.1.

Brach, too, had a wonderful start to the season, but fell off badly in the second half and ended the year with a 2.05 ERA. Perhaps that's why he had a 1.6 WAR last year and is only projected for 0.5 this year.

No one, however, illustrates how fine a line there is when using WAR to project performance like this than O'Day. In 2014, he made 68 appearances with a 1.70 ERA and earned 0.9 WAR, and a year later, had 68 appearances with a 1.52 for a 1.8 WAR. There was hardly anything between the two performances, but there was a big difference in WAR.

Next year, O'Day is projected to be worth 0.8 WAR, but past performance for him and everyone else shows how a guy can pop up and outperform in any given year. The Orioles hope that will be the case too with Mychal Givens (0.6 projected WAR in 2017 after compiling 1.2 WAR in his first full season last year).

It's all a bit early to think about whether the bullpen will be what it once was — we haven't even considered the possibility of trades — but by this measure, the expectations are certainly tempered.

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