A strength of the Baltimore Orioles the past three winning seasons has been the team’s bullpen. The Orioles have defied the Pythagorean odds and the regression models, especially in one-run and extra-inning games, thanks to an uncanny ability to hold late leads and keep runs off the scoreboard once the starter leaves the game. In the team’s playoff seasons of 2012 and 2014, the bullpen was especially outstanding, ranking fifth and sixth in bullpen ERA across both leagues.
This season, the bullpen has not been nearly as dominant. The Orioles’ bullpen this season ranks 16th in Major League Baseball with a 3.63 ERA and has already allowed 16 home runs, putting them on pace for 66 after allowing only 42 all last season. The biggest problem has been the base-on-balls, as the bullpen’s BB/9 has risen from 2.80 in 2014 to 3.47 in 2015. Jason Garcia, the Rule 5 pick the Orioles seem determined to keep, and his 7.2 BB/9 are slightly to blame for the inflated number, but Brian Matusz has also walked an unsightly 6.3 per nine after allowing only 3.0 walks per nine last season.
The Orioles have the eighth and ninth innings covered. The team has a 1.95 ERA in the eighth inning. The only real ERA that matters in the ninth inning is Zach Britton‘s, and as I’ve previously said, Britton has the ninth inning covered. No, the real trouble for the Orioles comes in the seventh inning.
Thanks to a very shaky middle relief group, the Orioles pitching staff has a 4.97 ERA in the seventh inning this season, which ranks 25th in the MLB. Yikes, that’s not very good. Contrary to popular belief, outs in the seventh inning are just as important as outs in the ninth inning. You can’t give the ball to your closer with a lead if the lead vanished in the hands of the middle relief squad.
The Orioles are not getting the job done, thanks to the likes of Tommy Hunter, Brad Brach, and Brian Matusz. Kevin Gausman was also hit-or-miss in middle relief this season, but he is now on the Disabled List and appears slated to return to starting upon his return.
Predicting middle relief statistics is one of the hardest things to do in baseball. These are the pitcher’s whose statistics fluctuate most wildly thanks to the small sample size of batters they face. A 2.00 ERA one year can very quickly turn into a 3.50 ERA the next. That can mean the difference in a not insignificant number of games. These are also the guys who come in the game with men on base most often. There is also no magic formula for avoiding hits with men in scoring position. It does indeed boil down to the unquantifiable — luck and the ever elusive clutch gene.
The Orioles recently brought up two pitchers from Triple-A, T.J. McFarland and Tyler Wilson. McFarland has been with the Orioles the past three seasons as he was the team’s most recent Rule 5 pick to stick. McFarland is a solid, unspectacular type armed with a pretty good sinker. He will throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard. Can’t ask for much more from a middle reliever.
The other youngster, Wilson, is an interesting player. I love the makeup of the young right-hander out of the University of Virginia. Wilson is calm and collected on the mound and throws strikes, as evidenced by his career 2.2 BB/9 in the minor leagues. He’s got a good sinking fastball that he can run up to the mid-90’s, as well as a slider and changeup.
At 25, Wilson is pretty much tapped out in the upside department. Like McFarland, he won’t wow you with fastball velocity. What he will do, however, is be a strike throwing machine. That is really all you can ask for if you are the Baltimore Orioles, especially given the high walk rate the bullpen has allowed this season. Wilson and McFarland are very similar pitchers, besides the fact that one throws right and the other left, there is not much difference in their makeup, velocities, or pitch arsenals.
One of these two needs to stick in the Orioles’ bullpen the rest of the year to serve as a stabilizing force in the middle innings. There appears, however, to be only one real spot open in the bullpen, and maybe none depending on how badly the Orioles want to keep Jason Garcia. Wesley Wright is working his way back to the Orioles. Wright will get another chance to serve as a left-handed middle reliever, so he may take McFarland’s spot. That leaves Wilson as a possibility, but only if the Orioles are willing to give him time to adjust to the rigors of relief life as he did not pitch a single inning of relief in the minor leagues.
Both McFarland and Wilson make sense for the Orioles the rest of the season. They are solid, no frills pitchers who can be counted on to get more than one out. Both have past starting experience which will allow them to go two or three innings in a pinch. While neither appears to have as much upside as Jason Garcia, the Orioles cannot fall into the trap of letting Garcia take up a spot in their bullpen. He is not ready, and cannot be used in high leverage situations. Both McFarland and Wilson can, and will help ease the nerves of Buck Showalter in the seventh inning and beyond.
Follow Josh Sadlock on Twitter: @JoshSadlock