Free-agent reliever Antonio Bastardo has been linked to the Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets. With one of the best bullpens in the American League, and having already re-signed set-up man Darren O’Day, the move would only be adding to a position of strength for the Orioles. Last offseason, the Orioles signed free agent Wesley Wright, but he did not finish the season with the team, turning in only 1.2 innings before being designated for assignment. Not including Zach Britton, the team’s closer, the Orioles have only one dependable, left-handed option in the bullpen in Brian Matusz. Being righty-heavy did not do much to hinder the Orioles’ bullpen in 2015, as the group of relievers pitched to a 3.21 ERA, fifth-best in all of baseball.
The Baltimore bullpen in 2016 could use one more lefty to really push itself over the top. The starting rotation needs cannot truly be addressed through free agency. Even if a name like Yovani Gallardo is added, there are still plenty of fifth and sixth-inning appearances coming for the relievers next season. Kevin Gausman is still an inefficient, skittish colt of a pitcher. Chris Tillman gives up too many foul balls. Ubaldo Jimenez is, well, Ubaldo Jimenez. Who knows what the number-five slot will hold. Gallardo himself is not known for going much deeper than the sixth inning. The bullpen is going to throw a lot of innings in 2016.
The top five pitchers currently in the bullpen for the Orioles are Matusz, Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, O’Day, and Britton. Matusz is the only real lefty specialist in the bullpen, and he struggles with inconsistency at times. T.J. McFarland is another left-hander who should make the initial 25-man roster, but he is more of a long man than anything else. With the game on the line, McFarland is not the type of pitcher who should be anywhere near the mound.
Last year, Matusz allowed a .186 batting average to left-handed hitters. He walked only four of them, opposed to 16 free passes issued to right-handed batters. As expected, his ERA against same-side hitters was significantly lower. Bastardo was just as good against lefties in 2015. He allowed a .138 batting average and struck out over one-fourth of the 73 left-handers who strode to the plate to face him. Unlike Matusz, who has allowed a batting average nearly 100 points higher to right-handed hitters for his career, Bastardo is consistently dominant against hitters on both sides of the plate. Righties bat .211 against him, compared to just .178 for lefties. Essentially, no one hits Antonio Bastardo when he is pitching well.
So, what’s the catch. There’s got to be a catch, right?
Yes, there is. Bastardo walks a lot of hitters. He’s walked over four batters per nine in his seven-year career. That’s why a pitcher with a career strikeout rate of 11.0 per nine has a career ERA of 3.58. His run prevention statistics fluctuate wildly. His 3.94 ERA in 2014 was sandwiched between a 2.32 and 2.98. His 4.33 in 2012 followed an ERA of 2.64 in 2011. Relievers will give up hits, even when they have great strikeout stuff. Whether or not those hits come with men on base depends largely on a pitcher’s ability to not put them on in the first place.
Antonio Bastardo, on a good, strike-throwing day, is an excellent fit for the Orioles. He gives them another high-strikeout pitcher to match with Brach, Givens, O’Day, and Britton. If the Orioles can handle the roller coaster ride that comes with signing a pitcher like Bastardo, their bullpen should be considered the best in the division, even better than the three-headed monster residing in the Bronx. All that depends on whether or not Bastardo can put his pitches across the plate. Signing a relief pitcher to a multi-year deal, especially one like Bastardo with a history of control problems and wild ERA fluctuations, is risky business, but with an already stable ‘pen, the Orioles can afford to take that risk.