With the MLB playoffs in full swing, it's been part amusing and part morbid as I'm watching each game and series to try to conceptualize how the Orioles would have gotten their requisite 27 outs with the pitching staff they assembled this season.
Their starts were already shorter than any other team in the American League, averaging 5.22 innings per start. But that would be even more abbreviated in a high-leverage situation like the postseason, where managers go get their starters at the first sign of trouble.
While it's fun to fantasize about Mychal Givens pitching in the third inning in October, there's no use for a team that didn't ultimately sniff the playoffs. What these playoffs are good for, however, is advice for how the Orioles should rebuild their rotation with next October in mind.
The first concern is to find someone for whom six or seven innings isn't a big struggle, especially considering how short the leash gets in October. Of the four remaining playoff teams, only the Houston Astros — buoyed by Cy Young winners Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander — have seen the average length of their starts go up. Everyone else has dropped by over half an inning, which would bring the Orioles into the fourth inning of an average playoff start if everyone were to decline at the same rate.
This would mean over five innings of relief in high-stress situations every game, something that's untenable. The Orioles' pursuits need to take them to someone who doesn't have trouble getting through an order a third time, and with the stuff and pitchability to carry them deep in a playoff start. For the regular season, deeper starts will mean a fresher bullpen come October. But it puts a different onus on that once the postseason starts.
Other than Kevin Gausman, whose velocity is sometimes seen as his biggest developmental hurdle, and Dylan Bundy, the Orioles didn't have many hard-throwing starters last year. That should change somehow, and it'll probably have to be from the outside.
According to Baseball Savant, the Orioles' average fastball was a middling 92 mph last season, and the playoffs have shown that both for starters who begin games and those who come out of the bullpen, velocity is at a premium. The Yankees have had entire games where there were no fastballs below 95 mph thrown. The Orioles, I'm sure, had the opposite this year.
A focus on raw stuff that can play in any situation and doesn't have to be as perfect as the Orioles pitchers have been recently would make things much easier come October.
Flexibility in roles
That the pitchers need to be able to play in relief as well could be the biggest separator in October. Big-name starters have faltered in big relief roles all month long, but there's always been the willingness to be there and to take the ball. The Orioles have had starters who have been finicky about their routines and how long it would take to warm up in relief, complicating things in the regular season.
Gausman and Bundy, who both have relief experience, are the types of pitchers who would take the ball at any time and have the stuff to be effective in an emergency relief appearance. Whether the pitchers the Orioles bring in this offseason are the same way will go a long way toward determining the team's success.