What a relief: Orioles find way to maintain bullpen consistency few can match
It didn't take long for Donnie Hart to realize how things are done in the Orioles bullpen.
Just a few games into his big league career, the team's left-handed specialist took notice that once the fifth inning hit, he was suddenly sitting by himself as his fellow relievers quietly retreated to different parts of the bullpen area to begin their stretching and pregame routines to be ready for a phone call from the dugout at a moment's notice.
"When I got there ... I was left kind of looking around wondering what was going on," Hart said. "I thought to myself, all these guys have had a tremendous amount of success in the big leagues and there's a madness to it, and you're kind of foolish to not follow it. I saw that and so I was like, 'You know what? I'm going to stick with what these guys are doing.'"
Pretty soon, Hart followed suit. The newest member of an Orioles bullpen that has been one of the team's most consistent strengths over the past five seasons found his spot quickly without being told. And like right-hander Mychal Givens the previous season, Hart fit into the bullpen's culture of success, one that involves an unspoken competitiveness every reliever participates in to carry his own share of the relief load.
Over the past five seasons, the Orioles bullpen's combined ERA is 3.25, which ranks third in baseball. But that number might tell you less than the fact that the Orioles' 151 wins by relievers since 2012 are the most in the majors, indicating that the club's bullpen is keeping close games within reach through the late innings, providing the team's heavy-hitting offense with opportunities down the stretch.
"I don't have to get up two guys because they're capable of pitching against lefties and righties," manager Buck Showalter said. "… It allows me to pass the load around and keep them healthy. Probably as proud a thing as I am here is the health of our bullpen as much as we depend on them. It's hard to do."
The Orioles bullpen has maintained consistency despite annual personnel and coaching changes. Setup man Darren O'Day is the one reliever who has been there through the entire span, and Roger McDowell will be the team's fourth pitching coach in four years. The Orioles have been able to maintain success because Showalter's handling of the bullpen has kept relievers healthier than most, and the team has continued to fill its bullpen with relievers who provide different looks and can perform in a variety of roles.
"When you're in the bullpen, you're just a bullpen guy," right-hander Brad Brach said. "There's no sixth-, seventh-, eighth-inning guy. It's you're in the bullpen and when your name is called, just be ready to go. Keeping us on our toes is definitely a big thing and there are just different type of situations we can be in."
Showalter "never really keeps you completely comfortable about when you're going to go in. I think we're a little more focused down there once we're in the fifth inning, because you have to be prepared for any situation."
This Orioles bullpen consists of pitchers who have flourished in their second lives. Closer Zach Britton struggled as a starter, O'Day was claimed off waivers, setup man Brach was a long reliever essentially stolen in a trade with the San Diego Padres, and Givens is a converted shortstop.
"Wherever they come from — trades, the minor leagues, out of nowhere, free agency, wherever —they're finding them and then Buck does a good job of utilizing the individuality of each guy and what makes him good and putting us in situations where we can succeed," O'Day said.
They also bear different looks, which is something Showalter likes. O'Day, Givens and Hart all throw from various sidearm angles. Brach is more over-the-top, and Britton's hard sinker is thrown with almost a catapult motion.
"It's calculated," Brach said. "There's a reason why we have so many different looks, so many different angles. Everybody can kind of do different things. So I think Buck really puts a lot of time into how he puts a bullpen together, not even how he uses us but also the different arm angles — three sidearmers, and more lefties and righties sometimes. I think that just goes a long way and I think he constructs his bullpen a little different way."
Over the past five seasons, Orioles relievers rank fifth in the majors in innings pitched but are 26th out of 30 teams in appearances, meaning part of their success has been longer appearances with fewer outings.
"There's a different philosophy on how you use guys here," O'Day said. "… But it works because it's well thought out, because [Showalter's] got a good idea of who is coming up, who's going to pinch hit, so he has an idea of who you're going to face if you're going to be in there for six batters. … It's very interesting to hear how he figures it out. He's obsessed about it. That's what he thinks about. What this guy's going to do tomorrow? He knows his opponent very well."
Trusting his bullpen pieces against both left-handers and right-handers is what allows Showalter to give his relievers extended stints, especially later in the game when pinch hitters become more of a factor.
"Not everyone is cookie-cuttered into doing this inning or that inning or face just lefties or righties," Britton said. "Everybody can basically do just about anything. I think the shelf life for bullpens is short because they get abused. Your better guys get abused and eventually they get hurt and then you've got to have somebody else come in and maybe you're not as deep.
"Buck does a good job of keeping everybody healthy. Everyone goes through injuries here and there, but I think over the last five years we've had a pretty healthy bullpen. That's the way he works guys. Knowing we have five guys down there who can throw in any role is also big, too. If I need a day, there's no doubt that Darren or Brad or anyone else can close the game out in a one-run game. If Brad needs a day, we have someone who can fill in his role. If Darren needs a day, someone can fill in for him."
It wasn't always that way last season. Left-handed specialist Brian Matusz struggled early and was eventually traded, leaving the Orioles looking for a lefty specialist for most of the season until Hart arrived. O'Day went on the disabled list and Givens was struggling against lefties, which left Brach as the only late-inning reliever who could defend himself against hitters from both sides of the plate before bridging to Britton in the ninth.
That gave Brach the opportunity to shine, and he made his first All-Star Game — but he also threw nearly 50 innings in the first half of the season.
"It was a challenge, but he let us know that," Britton said. "He said, 'Hey, I don't want to do it,' but he was going to have to lean on you more than normal. We were OK with that because when he did throw us a lot, he gave us two days off. It wasn't like he threw us three innings and a day off, especially for Brad. He probably got the brunt of it, but the communication with Buck was always good.
"There were certain games where maybe we could have pitched and maybe had a chance to win and he backed off," Britton said. He avoided us, and he said, 'You other guys, you have to pick up the load because we can't keep relying on these same guys.' And I think it helped some of those younger guys to realize, 'Hey, this is kind of my time to take over and to be able to pitch in those high-leverage situations.'"
The bullpen's 3.40 ERA last year was its second-worst over the team's past five seasons — only its 3.52 ERA in 2013 was higher — but still was the third best in baseball. Eventually the bullpen found its footing. Givens embraced throwing his changeup to lefties, O'Day returned and Hart emerged against lefties.
"That was a piece we had to have," Showalter said of Hart. "I'm not going to say it was the last piece, because it made us expose people in situations where they shouldn't have been pitching and it created some stress there that I didn't like."
With those five relievers anchoring the bullpen, the Orioles now also have a group of optionable long-relief candidates — lefties Vidal Nuno and Richard Bleier, as well as right-hander Logan Verrett — that can be sent to the minors when Showalter needs a fresh arm to provide length. Starters like Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, Chris Lee and Gabriel Ynoa can also be used in long relief.
"The depth of that is what's allowed people to stay healthy and pitching at a high level," Showalter said. "It's hard to just ride one or two guys and we're not going to. Our next group of relievers are coming from the minor leagues. Fortunately on paper it looks like we're going to be able to pass the load around again and not have a drop-off in effectiveness."
But ultimately, the one thing that keeps the relievers' standards high is a quiet competition among them all that allows them to feed off each other's success.
"I think there's a healthy type of competition," Britton said. "… We're thinking if [someone] puts up a zero, we're putting up a zero. If he strikes out a guy, we want to strike out a guy. And that standard always happens back there, but you're constantly trying to, not outdo the other guy but try to stay with him. Brad went through a stretch last year when I don't think he gave up a run in 30 innings and we're like, 'We have to keep up with him. We have to keep pace with him.'
"I think if anything, I think it brings out the best in guys. You want guys to do well because it drives you to continue to do well. And that's what we've had the last few years in the bullpen. We've had guys who were talented and that are performing well at a higher level and I think it makes those young guys go, 'Oh crap, I've got to keep up with that.' I don't think it puts pressure on them, it's just thinking that's the standard. Let's try to keep up with guys, and you see that. Donnie comes up and he's trying to do that right away."