Buck Showalter was ahead of the game early in Orioles tenure, before the rest of baseball caught up

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The Orioles’ collapse can be blamed on more than Buck Showalter, the man who left Camden Yards for the final time as manager Wednesday, just as more than Showalter deserve credit for the club’s ascent back to relevance from 2012 to 2016.

What became clear as the Orioles ceded their place among the perennial playoff contenders this decade and entered the team-building phase intended to lead the club back to success, as with all smart approaches, the way the Orioles developed into a contender under Showalter was eventually copied by the rest of the game.

Showalter's ability to run a bullpen and emphasis on defense helped the Orioles close the gap between themselves and the teams with fewer financial and organizational challenges than they carried. But a combination of the rest of the league adopting that philosophy, and the Orioles sliding backward in those areas, made the whole operation crumble. As a result, executive vice president Dan Duquette will also not be back with the club in 2019, the club announced Wednesday night, as player development director Brian Graham will assume interim control of day-to-day oversight of the baseball operations department. Graham, as well as vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson and scouting director Gary Rajsich, will remain under contract.

Even as the Orioles developed a reputation for bashing home runs over the course of their three playoff appearances, what made them tick was the oft-overlooked areas in which they thrived.

As a team, from 2012, when they made their leap forward, to 2016, when they last appeared in the playoffs, the Orioles had a 3.25 cumulative bullpen ERA, second best in the American League to the Kansas City Royals — perhaps not coincidentally the team that beat the Orioles at their own game in that stretch, appearing in two World Series and winning one with the same formula.

But the Orioles’ bullpen was as dangerous as any. First with Jim Johnson closing games, then with Zach Britton, they not only spared themselves much of the closer drama that besieges teams unsettled at that position but had a steady line of deputies who pitched well in the middle and late innings to create save chances. Over that stretch, Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Brad Brach and Mychal Givens, plus a host of others, were deployed at key moments and got results, helping the Orioles to the best record in the AL from 2012 to 2016. Brach was an addition of Duquette. The Orioles also got meaningful contributions from unheralded acquisitions such as Luis Ayala, Chaz Roe and Ryan Webb. Showalter benefited from roster flexibility afforded by Duquette when the team had relievers with minor league options in the bullpen, allowing him to cycle them out and remove the burden off the primary relievers.

A study in the 2018 Baseball Prospectus annual publication found that under Showalter, Orioles relievers had been worth at least two runs in clutch situations in all but one season. Part of that is the basic event sequencing that makes baseball the random game that it is, part of it is skill on behalf of the player, and part is how they're deployed. For years, Showalter and his relievers talked of how the phone would ring in the bullpen and the person who was being asked to get ready would know before his name was spoken.

In the interim, relief pitching has become among the most valuable commodities in the game. It's not just teams looking for value in the margins — like the Orioles, Royals and Oakland Athletics — atop the league relief ERA leaderboard anymore. The New York Yankees spent significantly on the likes of Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. The Boston Red Sox traded for Craig Kimbrel. The Houston Astros built a top bullpen, and the Cleveland Indians traded for Miller to go with closer Cody Allen.

On those teams, a lockdown bullpen was just one piece of a dynamic, talented puzzle. Those clubs had starting pitching and stars across their lineups, too, but their bullpens were regarded on equal footing.

The importance of relief pitching became solidified, somewhat ironically, after Showalter didn’t use Britton in the 2016 wild-card game after a season the manager called one of the best ever thrown by a reliever, instead using Ubaldo Jiménez and losing the game shortly thereafter. Those playoffs then became defined by early bullpen calls, and the regular-season game has followed suit.

As that happened, the Orioles bullpen regressed. Britton peaked in 2016 and two years of injuries followed. O'Day was himself for only spells, with injuries besetting him after years of durability. Brach and Givens struggled some when asked to elevate their roles. The 2018 Orioles were 27th in the majors with a 4.78 relief ERA.

Same goes for the defensive ability that carried the Orioles to their success. It's no coincidence that once Showalter took over in 2010, Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy each won Gold Glove Awards every year from 2012 to 2014, with Nick Markakis, Manny Machado and Matt Wieters also winning in that timeframe. They had three Gold Glove winners each year from 2012 to 2014, but none since Machado won in 2015.

They peaked with 57 defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2014 to lead the American League, but by that measure, that was the last year the Orioles had an above-average defense under Showalter. This year's team cratered at -108 DRS, for a variety of reasons.

At first, it was almost a requirement to defend your position to play for Showalter. It's how Jonathan Schoop kept the second base job through early struggles at the plate, how Caleb Joseph was able to break in as Wieters' replacement in 2014, and why the likes of David Lough and later Craig Gentry carved out roles on the team. It's why Ryan Flaherty stuck around so long, too. It also similarly limited opportunities for the likes of Hyun Soo Kim and Travis Snider.

Partially because of the players brought in during the draft and through other avenues, the Orioles never maintained the type of defensive quality Showalter sought. Players were shoe-horned out of position into corner outfield spots, and going from Hardy to Tim Beckham at shortstop and Markakis to Snider in right field weren't exactly like-for-like replacements.

Yet as defense became more quantifiable through advanced analytics and became more of a team-building goal than simply a side effect, contending teams followed suit. The Red Sox now run out an elite defender in right field in Mookie Betts beside center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., just as the Orioles did with Jones and Markakis. The Indians and Astros have standout defenders all over the infield, and even the Yankees have sacrificed offense in some places for defensive stability.

Many of these factors were building throughout the decade, with the Orioles both a part of and riding the wave. In some aspects, others did it better.

But Showalter's Orioles hung their hat on bullpen success and defense over all else, setting up a stark downfall only made worse by the fact that the rest of the league caught up and passed them.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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