Orioles Bullpen Improvements In 2019
I have always been someone who strongly believes in the saying, “bad baseball is better than no baseball.” That was until I watched the 2018 Baltimore Orioles and then the 2019 Orioles. The past two seasons have really challenged that belief. Luckily, Austin Hays and his electric month of September allowed us to somewhat enjoy Orioles baseball for a few more weeks before the season finally reached its merciful end.
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Coming off back-to-back 100+ loss seasons (two highest single season loss totals at 115 and 108), it’s very likely that the 2020 Orioles get a lot worse before they get any better. General manager Mike Elias isn’t planning on writing any major checks this winter and the team’s leader in Wins Above Replacement and only real threat on the basepaths, infielder Jonathan Villar, is at the center of Orioles trade and non-tender talks.
Other notable pieces, such as reliever Mychal Givens, are also reportedly in demand, while names like starting pitcher Dylan Bundy, infielder Hanser Alberto, and infielder/DH Renato Nunez have had their names thrown around as possible trade chips. The Orioles are surely listening to offers on Trey Mancini, but I get the sense that it’s going to take a lot more than what anyone will be willing to part with to acquire the 2019 Most Valuable Oriole.
Mike Elias has been on record stating that the team could be active in the trade market this winter. If any of the above pieces are moved, who replaces them on the active roster? Without much serviceable depth in the upper minors, things could get worse before they get better in Birdland.
Do I even need to discuss the pitching staff? Orioles pitchers finished last in the league in combined fWAR (5.5), ERA (5.67), and home runs allowed (305), allowing 35 more home runs than the Colorado Rockies, who finished with the second-highest number of home runs allowed. Shopping down the clearance aisle for low-cost free agents and veterans looking to rebound from injury-riddled 2019 seasons won’t provide much relief, but that’s where the Orioles are looking to pull pitching help from.
Outside of Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann, we won’t see many rookies make their home in the majors, just yet. Other than a few possible minor league relievers (keep an eye out for Zack Muckenhirn and Cristian Alvarado), we likely won’t see such names as Yusniel Diaz, Adley Rutschman, Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann, or Alex Wells until 2021.
Does all of this make you excited to watch Baltimore Orioles baseball next season? It won’t be easy to sit through another 162 games with this roster, but there are areas where the Orioles should see notable improvements as they start to turn things around.
A healthy Austin Hays in center field should help stabilize a positional group that featured one of the league’s worst defenders in Dwight Smith Jr and the likes of Anthony Santander and Stevie Wilkerson in center. But could the largest improvements come from the bullpen? Yes, that bullpen that led to night after night of anxiety filled late-innings and ugly collapses..
Orioles relievers combined to go 18-32 with a league-worst 5.79 ERA, 1.73 HR/9 IP rate, a .268 average against, and a 4.06 BB/9 IP rate which finished eighth-worst in the majors. They were worth a combined 0.4 fWAR. Only the Colorado Rockies (0.2) and the Miami Marlins (-2.2) provided less value. Nowhere to go but up, right?
There were improvements from the first half to the second half of the season, led by strong post-All-Star break performances from Mychal Givens (tied for the team lead in WAR among bullpen pitchers), Miguel Castro (.183 average against and near 25% strikeout rate), and Tanner Scott (four earned runs in 13 September outings). Overall, the bullpen was bad, but there were bright spots we can highlight that allow for a bit of optimism heading in 2020.
Let’s start with the Miguel Castro. Orioles fans are surely sick of asking if this is the year Castro finally harnesses his potential, but I’m not ready to give up on him. His fastball velocity jumped from 95.4 mph to 97.3 mph in 2019, while his slider saw a velocity jump of nearly two miles per hour and his changeup saw a three mph increase, jumping to an average of 90.6 mph.
Opponents hit .154 against his slider and .093 against the changeup, with both pitches seeing notable jumps in swings and misses (approaching 40%). Unfortunately, the fastball is wild, doesn’t produce swings and misses, and opponents feasted on the pitch when it did find the zone. He went from using it more than 58% of the time to just over 48% of the time and started seeing much more success with the pitch as the season went along and he used it less.
The 24-year-old, 6’7” righty held opponents to a .183 average in the second half of the season and saw his ERA drop from 5.28 to 3.72. Minus a disaster against Toronto on September 18th where he gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning, Castro gave up no runs on three hits over 11 of his final 12 outings. That’s a lot of momentum heading into 2020 for an organization who still thinks highly of him.
The Orioles appear to be dedicated to keeping both Hunter Harvey and Dillon Tate in the bullpen. Harvey was finally healthy for the first time since the Orioles used a first round draft pick on him back in 2013 and quickly made his presence known when he made his major league debut last season. With a fastball that averaged more than 98 mph and 11 strikeouts in his first six innings of pro ball, Harvey has the look of a reliable late-inning reliever.
Tate was up and down in his pro debut, but since converting to the bullpen, Tate held opponents to a .224 average in Double-A and .212 average in nine Triple-A innings. He struck out 20 in 21 major league innings and produced a groundball rate just shy of 60%. After giving up seven earned runs in his first six innings, Tate allowed eight runs over his final 15 frames, including eight scoreless outings of at least one inning. A full offseason of work as a reliever could lead to a much improved second season in the bigs and, hopefully, some salvage value from last year’s Zack Britton trade.
Richard Bleier will be another year removed from major surgery and while he won’t strike very many guys out, he has recorded walk rates of 3% and 3.4% in each of his last two seasons. Combine that with his career 62% groundball rate and ability to avoid bat barrels and the 32-year-old lefty has been able to carve out a respectable role in his four seasons as a major league pitcher. His ERA may have taken a significant jump, but his 4.19 FIP wasn’t far off from his career average.
Shawn Armstrong was a very underrated pickup for Mike Elias last season. Going 1-0 with a 5.13 ERA, his FIP was nearly a full run lower (4.28) and he struck out nearly 10/9 IP. He led all Orioles relievers with a 0.7 fWAR and was the only one with at least 40 innings of work to own a home run/fly ball rate under 10%, which is pretty impressive considering his abysmal 30% groundball rate.
The fireballer lefty known as Tanner Scott seemed to really turn a corner with his play in September. Known for his triple-digit fastball, electric raw stuff, and high walk totals, Scott worked a 3.86 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and .206 average against in 13 September outings, walking three and striking out 14. Have the Orioles been able to unlock something there?
There are wildcards among the group that could provide much needed additional support. Evan Phillips struck out 40 in 28 innings, Paul Fry and Branden Kline will look to rebound in 2020, while recent waiver claim Cole Sulser has a history of high strikeout numbers. Both Zach Pop (Tommy John) and Cody Carroll (back) missed all of 2019 with injuries but should work their way back at some point this summer. Even if just one of these arms steps up, we can consider that a success.
Finally, there’s Mychal Givens. Givens is on the trade block and the New York Yankees are reportedly still interested him, but assuming he returns next season, Givens suffered largely from a mismanaged bullpen, not helped by a starting rotation that struggled to make it through five, much less six innings in a game.
Despite his struggles, Givens recorded a career-high 12.29 K/9 IP rate and was highly effective in the eighth inning and when he wasn’t trotted out for more than one inning of work. Ranking among the upper echelon in terms of fastball velocity and spin rate, Givens had a bad season in a year of juiced baseballs and monster offensive numbers. He isn’t a closer, but is a very good reliever with an overpowering fastball when used in optimal situations.
The bullpen won’t magically turn things around next year and may very well still rank in the bottom half of the league, but there’s potential to develop into a unit that doesn’t make fans change the channel or go to bed early when Brandon Hyde comes out to relieve his starter.
It’s going to be another long season, but this is a storyline that will keep my attention.
A former high school teacher and coach in the mountains of Virginia, Nick Stevens has been writing about the Baltimore Orioles and their minor league system for five years. When he isn’t at a minor league stadium, he’s enjoying a Wizards game or supporting his alma mater, James Madison University.
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