A year after spurring a drastic turnaround, the Orioles bullpen appears to have lost its “magic.'
The Orioles won 93 games last season after losing 93 the year before. They made the playoffs for the first time since 1997, taking the New York Yankees to five games in the ALDS.
A lot of the success came from a bullpen that posted the majors' fifth best ERA at 3.00. It entered Wednesday with a 3.79 mark, good for 17th.
Don't blame turnover. The drop-off comes after returning six of the nine most frequently used pitchers.
Blame Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson, two key relievers last season whose declines could've been predicted and prepared for. The former posted a 7.25 ERA and 1.70 WHIP before being dealt to the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, and the latter has a 3.92 ERA and five blown saves.
Strop looked solid last season as the primary eighth-inning reliever, posting a 2.44 ERA over 66 1/3 innings. But he averaged 5.02 walks per nine innings, nearly two more than the league average, and had a 3.45 ERA after the All-Star Break.
Johnson's trouble has resulted from a lack of strikeouts. He struck out an average of 5.4 batters per nine innings last season, the fewest ever by someone who saved 50 games.
His weaknesses showed when he allowed six runs (five earned) in four games against the Yankees. But he is cavalier about his lack of strikeouts.
“People need to quantify it however they want to, and that's fine,' Johnson told “PressBox,' a monthly sports publication in Baltimore. “As long as we win the game, that's all that matters.
“In my view, it's all about trying to get the outs. I try to pitch the way that I knew that I can get outs, and basically it's if I can get three outs before they score a run then it's usually successful.'
He's right, but he ignores an important point. Pitchers who induce strikeouts are less dependent on their defense. Johnson is a ground ball pitcher and the Orioles have a good infield defense, but a strikeout is (essentially) a sure out.
Strikeouts lead to more dominant outings in which you can guarantee getting outs before allowing runs.
What's saved the Orioles this season is Darren O'Day continuing to be the great reliever that he is, and Tommy Hunter pitching well. Brian Matusz and Troy Patton have both been serviceable.
With Johnson's struggles, how the Orioles structure their bullpen going forward is important. And as much as Orioles fans may not like it, Johnson should stay at closer. It's the role best suited for him because he'll rarely enter with runners on base.
Yes, closers receive the most attention and are the highest-paid relievers. But they shouldn't be the team's best pitcher. Orioles manager Buck Showalter was smart enough to see that last season, when Johnson had the third highest WAR (wins above replacement) among Orioles relievers (behind O'Day and Strop) but still closed.
Hunter and O'Day should be the primary setup relievers. I'd give Hunter the sixth and seventh (in case a starting pitcher ran into trouble then) because he has a background as a starting pitcher and can produce longer outings. Either one could succeed in these roles, however.
Strop and Johnson's early-season struggles are another reminder of the need to trade away players when their values are high. Several teams, including the Dodgers, Indians and Tigers, needed a closer this offseason, but the Orioles didn't take advantage.
They paid the price with early-season declines from those two.