The Baltimore Orioles and Fleeting Bullpen Greatness

Over-Under Day — the day the first sportsbooks release their win-loss over-under totals for all 30 MLB teams — is one of my favorite days of the lead-in to baseball season. I’m not much of a gambler — I stick to risking my money on fantasy sports, personally — but Las Vegas is as good a projection system as we have, and although the numbers here will likely be revised between now and Opening Day, they provide as good a barometer for current team strength as you’ll find anywhere.

The Orioles, unsurprisingly, have the biggest drop-off from last year’s win total to this year’s over-under — 93 wins in 2012 to just a 76.5 over-under for 2013. Should Baltimore perform to Vegas’s projection, it will be just another example of the fleeting greatness of particularly clutch units, like the Orioles’ 2012 bullpen.

The idea of fleeting greatness is nothing new, of course. For example, only three of last season’s eight playoff squads from 2011 reached the postseason in 2012 despite the expanded format. Specifically, though, Baltimore’s greatness came on the back of a great — and particularly great in the clutch — bullpen. This greatness has, in the past, been the toughest to cling to. Baltimore’s plus-13.86 WPA in 2012 was the highest mark a bullpen has posted since 1974 (the extent of our data); its plus-7.19 clutch score was the highest recorded as well.

Observe, the fates of teams with the next 25 best bullpen WPAs (all plus-8.50 or greater):


The results match up well with research I did at Disciples of Uecker during the season looking at the 25 worst bullpens by WPA. Whereas those clubs typically gained 13 wins or so (67 wins to 80 wins) the next season, the best bullpens by WPA dropped 10.6 wins (from 96.2 to 85.6) the following year.

Part of the effect is the impossibility of repeating such incredible performances. The 2001 Mariners went from 116 wins to 93 the next season; the Big Red Machine dropped from 108 wins in 1975 to 102 in 1976 to 88 in 1977. The list goes on, and certainly applies to specific bullpens (or offenses, or rotations) as well.

Intuitively, specifically clutch performances tend to regress harder to the mean. But how much harder? As before, all data comes from the 1974 season onward:

Statistic Wins Next Year Wins Change Avg. Clutch
Position WAR 98.5 92.9 (5.6) (1.0)
Position WPA 102.1 92.8 (9.3) 2.3
Reliever WAR 87.4 82.8 (4.7) 1.1
Reliever WPA 96.2 85.6 (10.6) 3.8
Starter WAR 94.2 86.2 (8.0) (0.4)
Starter WPA 97.6 93.4 (4.3) 1.3

For both position players and relievers, teams in the top of 25 of the WAR leaderboard dropped about 40-60 percent as many games as teams in the top 25 of the WPA leaderboard. Unsurprisingly, there was a significant gap in the average clutch scores for both of these groups — 3.3 wins for position players, 2.7 wins for relievers. This matches up with the intuition — teams regress to the mean, but the combination of regression and the ever impermanent nature of clutch performance leads to a doubly hard fall.

For starters, things get a little dicey. The top 25 teams on the WAR leaderboard actually regressed less than the top 25 teams on the WPA leaderboard (and the same thing happens with RA9-Wins substituted for FIP-based WAR). I would surmise this is because starting pitchers typically deal with far fewer high-leverage situations than hitters and relievers, but it remains an interesting result perhaps worthy of deeper research.

The 2012 Orioles’ combination of the highest recorded bullpen WPA and bullpen clutch score is just one of many statistical indicators pointing more towards 76.5 wins than 93 in 2013. One can also point to their Pythagorean record (82-80), ZiPS projected WAR (33, per this post) and the fact they were outscored (511-504) in the first six innings of games, for example.

Nothing about Baltimore’s relievers suggests its clutch bullpen dominance will continue. Jim Johnson became just the second closer ever to record 10 fewer strikeouts than games saved (Danny Kolb, 2004) and neither his 2.49 ERA nor 3.25 FIP particularly stand out among closers. Pedro Strop posted a 2.44 ERA but struck out under three more batters per nine innings than he walked (which led to a 3.59 FIP). What the pair did last season in recording 73 shutdowns to just 16 meltdowns was phenomenal, but like most phenomena, it is unlikely to repeat.

Baltimore did little to improve their team in the offseason and will go into 2013 with a very similar roster to the one which finished off 2012. And like 2012, Baltimore will be facing long odds to contend, and likely long odds to even finish .500 unless bullpen lightning can strike twice.

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30 Responses to “The Baltimore Orioles and Fleeting Bullpen Greatness”

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  1. Kyle H says:

    Although I and really anyone should agree that the bullpen won’t do that again, the Orioles also were a much improved team in the second half of last year. They have a lot of young pieces, I dont think it improbable to win 85 games this year.

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    • Mike M says:

      Agreed. They were a .500 ball club up until August, with a run differential close to -70. After they purchased the contracts of McClouth and Machado they caught fire. It took a while to undo the damage, but they eventually got that run differential (which everyone looked at last year) to go into the black.

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  2. Dingbat Charlie says:

    Strop does walk too many batters, but his GB% is preposterously high and he’s only allowed 4 home runs in 106 ML innings.

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    • Detroit Michael says:

      You are right. The GB% spiked to 64%. When it gets that high, it does tend to lower BABIP because the line drive % starts to fall.

      Strop also gained velocity last year.

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  3. Ryan says:

    All valid points, but I think the regression of the bullpen in 2013 will be complemented with improvements with the rotation and overall defense over 162 games. Jim Johnson is no Mariano and Darren O’Day is unlikely to replicate last years stats. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be foolish to say they will win 93 games again in 2013, but you’d be foolish to peg them at 76.5. I say they have a 60 plus % chance of playing .500 ball and if you held me at gunpoint, I’d say they they will go 85-77 in 2013, just missing the playoffs. I think people fail to realize Dylan Bundy is going to make an impact this year. I think he will be promoted in May and pitch out of the bullpen, then move to the rotation in July. Same can be said for Gasuman, but probably less time in the bullpen. The O’s are stockpiling pitchers and I see them making an impact mid season trade unless they are playing horrible to complement the promotion of Gausman and Bundy.

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  4. Brandon says:

    It’s hard to envision another playoff run after the FO inexplicably failed to make even a gesture at improving via trade or free agency. But to say they’re a long shot to finish .500 is taking regression to the mean a step too far. In 2012 they were a .500 club even without the ridiculous luck in one-run games. They’ll have Machado at third instead of a statue, Hardy should bounce back at the plate, Reimold can hit if he can stay on the field…

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    • jdbolick says:

      The front office did the right thing by continuing to focus on the long-term instead of feeding public expectations following the surprising and unsustainable success last season. I’ve been an Orioles fan all my life and enjoyed the heck out of 2012, but trying to patch holes is precisely the mistake Baltimore made in the late 90s. This season they need to tread water, then hopefully target 2014 for contention. Really, they need some of the young pitchers besides Bundy to step up. It seems like the Orioles have had more flameouts from young hurlers than any other organization I can think of in recent years.

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      • Brandon says:

        I think one or two creative moves and a modest payroll increase could have set them up for contention this year without undermining 2014. If someone wanted some or all of The Calvary in a deal for a legit first or second baseman, for example, we should have pulled the trigger. Duquette and Buck are gluttons for punishment if they’re willing to give Arrieta and Britton another crack at the rotation.

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        • jdbolick says:

          There was no realistic path to contention this year. 2012 was a mirage, albeit an enjoyable one, borne of unsustainable luck. This column details some of that quite nicely. Baltimore could have signed Haren or McCarthy given their reasonable deals, but that’s about it.

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    • shibboleth says:

      I respect the FO’s restraint, actually. The Jays went all-in because they saw a weak/rebuilding division, but they paid through the nose for it. Not saying that was a poor decision for the Jays; just saying it’s the wrong decision for the O’s. I’d rather Machado, Bundy etc have a better supporting cast in 2015 than today.

      Let the talent build in Baltimore, and strike out for Free Agents in ’14 or ’15. IIRC the ’14 class is kinda thin, so maybe they’ll wait to strike until ’15.

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      • Ryan says:

        you lost me at “The Jays went all-in because they saw a weak/rebuilding division.” Are you kidding? This is easily the strongest division in baseball and if the AL East is a “Weak/rebuilding” division, than the AL Central, AL West, NL East, NL Central and NL West are simply filled with AAA players, which obviously isn’t the case.

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        • jdbolick says:

          Compared to what it normally is, the A.L. East is “weak/rebuilding.” New York figures to take a step back, the Red Sox are less than imposing, and Tampa Bay just traded their best starting pitcher.

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        • deadpool says:

          I would imagine “weak/rebuilding” is in comparison to the usual strength of the AL East. The Red Sox are unlikely to contend, the Rays and Yanks are more likely to win 90 than 100. If there was a time to make a run at the division this is it.

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        • Scott says:

          “Traded their best starting pitcher”? When did they trade David Price?

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      • Dave in GB says:

        The Orioles have been saying this for the past 10 years. If anything, they overvalue their propects entirely too much. They should’ve traded Jake Arrieta for Chase Headly last year when they had the chance, but instead the O’s were banking on Arrieta’s upside and a Brian Roberts comeback. Honesty, and this isn’t even hindsight, I’d rather take the proven player in Headley and ship off a pitcher with a mid-rotation ceiling. And thats just one example. Outside the Bedard trade, the Orioles for over a decade have been notorious for dropping the ball on yrades like that.

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        • Pumpkin says:

          Yea, Arrieta for Headley was never, ever on the table. At the minimum we suspect it was Arrieta, Matusz, and Schoop and that was for 1st half Chase Headley before he went all Barry Bonds in the 2nd half of the season, which almost no one could have predicted. Plus they got more than adequate production out of Machado for nothing more than a gamble and a 4th year of arbitration

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  5. cass says:

    Minor correction:

    “For example, only three of last season’s eight playoff squads from 2011 reached the postseason in 2012 despite the expanded format.”

    Actually, four out of the eight teams from 2011’s postseason returned to the postseason in 2012: the Cardinals, Tigers, Rangers, and Yankees.

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    • jim says:

      are we counting the coin flip game as the playoffs now?

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      • cass says:

        Jack Moore’s own words were “despite the expanded format”, so that implies he was counting all division winners and wild card teams for 2012.

        I’m not trying to start a debate on the subject, just offer a correction to the author.

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  6. Scott M says:

    If all other facets of the game were to remain the same, a fall from 93 to 76-77 wins would seem appropriate; however, isn’t it reasonable to expect some of those other facets to improve and, thus, negate some of the fall-off from the bullpen’s regression to the mean. Adam Jones and Chris Davis had solid seasons last year, but a number of the bats could improve. Hardy, Wieters, Markakis…a full year of Machado, Reimold and McLouth…all have room for improvement. I’d say the starting pitching is a wash with some guys pitching over their heads (not by much) – Chen, Hammels, M Gonzalez, Tillman – while others might improve – Britton, Matusz, Hunter, Arrieta. All-in-all, I’d take the over on Vegas’ line of 76.5 and side with Kyle H at closer to 84-85.

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    • jdbolick says:

      I don’t see any starting pitchers on the staff that I’m confident in. Plus, Baltimore feasted on the East last season. New York might be a little worse, but Toronto will obviously be substantially better and it’s tough to imagine Boston being 20 games below .500 in the division again even though I’m less than impressed with their off-season moves. The Orioles could actually improve as a team and still end up around that 76.5 win mark.

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    • mdecav says:

      Bundy and maybe Gausman could be the intangibles in the second half. I’d take the over as well.

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  7. grandbranyan says:

    This data gives me hope for the 2013 Brewers bullpen.

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  8. Neil S says:

    Not really a response to the content, as such, but… I wanted to mention that I found that graph hilariously hard to read. In part, I’m assuming, it’s because the legend matches the graph itself incompletely and inaccurately. It implies that every item should feature both of those shades of green, and they don’t. I also see this unbordered dark-green color in the graph, with no corresponding description in the legend.

    I suppose that it looks cool, as-is – and after a couple seconds, I figured out what it was telling me and how – but shouldn’t simplicity be the rule with graphs?

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  9. commenter #1 says:

    if only every casual orioles fan who thinks they’re going to be just as good next year would understand these things

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    • Jason B says:

      People overvalue the things that they saw most recently (i.e., “Gee the Orioles were really good last year, no way they drop back to only 76 or 77 wins!”) Vegas oddsmakers take full advantage of that trick-of-the-mind.

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  10. OK says:

    I agree with a lot of this, but you overstate your case when you say the Orioles probably face long odds to even reach .500.

    What odds would you be willing to give me?

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  11. aj says:

    Id take the over on that projection. Doubt they contend for the playoffs but 500 is easily attainable and if they get lucky and a few other teams unlucky (Jays aren’t overly deep and look how decimated they were by injury last year they were) Also they get to beat up on Houston more (Granted AL west teams more so they should have both WC teams maybe now) they can win 90+ again. Next year is the O’s year to be big players, Gausman/Bundy surface this year, they grab a decent FA or two next summer, Yanks/Jays get a year older the Rays more expensive. O’s did good opening up a solid window for them to aim through after this year.

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  12. Dflynn1162 says:

    The O’s success was due in large part to the managers instincts and ability to make the right move at the right time. Buck is pretty good. I say the O’s win 86, down slightly, but maybe a better team.

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