The Orioles and the Most Influential Bullpen

Wei-Yin Chen gave up two runs in just 5.1 innings Tuesday against the Mariners. The next 12.2 innings all belonged to the Baltimore bullpen. Their response? Six hits, four walks, 16 strikeouts and zero runs, with all but one of those 12.2 innings requiring a shutout just to keep the game going.

As a result, Steve Johnson, Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Jim Johnson and Brian Matusz combined for a massive 1.170 WPA on the game. The Orioles bullpen now owns a 12.51 WPA for the whole season, with yesterday’s performance enough to push them over the 1984 Tigers for the highest season bullpen WPA since our reports carry the data (back to 1974). Judging by the historical data, this Orioles bullpen has been the most influential in recent major league history.

The 1984 Tigers bullpen largely featured Willie Hernandez‘s dominance — a +8.58 WPA on the back of 140.1 IP with a 1.92 ERA and 2.58 FIP. Hernandez went on to win the MVP that year for the eventual World Series champions as the club topped the American League at 104-58. Hernandez was most certainly not the only influential player on that team. The club’s worst wRC+ from a player with at least 160 PA was Tom Brookens‘s 93. Alan Trammell (137 wRC+, 7.3 WAR), Chet Lemon (133 wRC+, 6.6 WAR) and Kirk Gibson (145 wRC+, 5.2 WAR) were elite players as well. This was a team with playoff destinies even without Hernandez, most likely.

We can’t have such confidence about the Orioles, whose success has mystified analysts and fans alike for much of the season. But how they’re winning isn’t much of a mystery — when they grab a late lead, they hold on for dear life behind a bullpen that has been especially good in the back end. Jim Johnson has just three meltdowns against 42 shutdowns. Darren O’Day has held righties to a .199/.268/.333 line and owns a 2.47 ERA. Pedro Strop has a 2.27 ERA behind a heavy sinking fastball, generating 65.1% ground balls. These three combined have 9.21 of the Orioles’ total 12.51 WPA. This trio is, at least in terms of game influence and results, the Orioles’ version of Willie Hernandez in 1984.

It’s not the best bullpen ever. Baltimore’s 3.05 ERA is just sixth this year behind the Royals, Athletics, Braves, Rays and Reds, nearly a half-run behind Cincinnati. Their 3.75 FIP is 14th. On pure runs allowed or peripherals, this is nothing we haven’t seen before. But they save their best for the biggest moments. Only the Rays have allowed a lower wOBA against in high leverage situations, and not by much — .250 to Baltimore’s .258. O’Day is at .179, Johnson at .198, and Strop at .245; all three are above .260 in low-leverage situations. The Orioles bullpen has five of the top-35 pitchers in high leverage situations this season.

How does a team win when they’re outscored overall? Those times they are staked to a lead, they have to hold on. Cling for dear life as potential disaster after potential disaster come and pass. The Mariners opened two of the extra frames on Tuesday with doubles, and the Orioles stranded each one. The Mariners helped, to be sure, with failed bunts and poor at-bats. But the Orioles’ relievers did exactly what they’ve been doing all year — whatever it takes to keep their team alive or ahead. So maybe they’re not the best ever, on merit or talent. But they’re definitely one of the most important bullpen units we’ve ever seen.



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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.


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AlbionHero
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AlbionHero
3 years 11 months ago

At this point, would anyone really be shocked if the Orioles go on to win the World Series? They keep on defying every expectation, so I’m almost expecting them to continue that till the season is over.

shibboleth
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shibboleth
3 years 11 months ago

Great article, Jack. Credit the O’s for using Arrieta, Matusz and Johnson in long relief. The Earl Weaver quote about young arms in long relief is especially sweet here.

nolan
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nolan
3 years 11 months ago

Orioles v. Mariners: When Colossal Bullpens Meet

nsacpi
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nsacpi
3 years 11 months ago

Luck should not be dismissed. There will always someone (some team) whose luck is six sigma out in the tail of the distribution.

John Thacker
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John Thacker
3 years 11 months ago

Six sigma? I don’t think so. Six sigma (in a normal distribution) is 1 in 500 million.

John Thacker
Guest
John Thacker
3 years 11 months ago

There is likely someone like that in the population of the US who has a six sigma luck year. But for 30 baseball teams? Not in millions of years.

Matthias
Member
Member
3 years 11 months ago

But three or four sigma every 5 seasons? I think that’s expectable. New word, expectable.

John Thacker
Guest
John Thacker
3 years 11 months ago

Oh sure, 3 or 4 sigma.

But if you think something six sigma just happened, that’s often a sign that your model is wrong. (Again, unless you’re talking about something that’s literally about one person out of everyone in the USA, or similar things.)

Kris
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Kris
3 years 11 months ago

It’s called hyperbole you nerds ;)

marlins12
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marlins12
3 years 11 months ago

How do you evaluate a guy like Jim Johnson this year?

Obviously, paying big money to relievers is rarely (never?) a good idea. However, what I’m trying to say is…what has he been worth this year? WAR doesn’t think much of him because of lack of innings/K’s, but he has a WPA of ~5 and 42 shutdowns. Are those the better #’s to judge relievers by? What is that worth in a season in terms of money?

Matthias
Member
Member
3 years 11 months ago

I’m not sure one season’s WPA correlates too strongly to the next season’s WPA, so in terms of paying him in free agency, I would stay away. But in terms of value this season, I would say he has been more valuable than his WAR.

Westman
Member
Westman
3 years 11 months ago

I play in a baseball simulation league and I make it a priority to keep a strong bullpen. My late inning numbers and extras are always above my overall winning percentage because a good defense is a good offense. The opposing team can not win if it can not score. Period.

Xerxes314
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Xerxes314
3 years 11 months ago

Are the Orioles lucky or good? Consider their extra-innings record: 15-2 (as of 2012 Sep 20).

Firstly, 17 extra-innings games seems like a lot, and it is a bit more than normal. Over the last 50 years (since the schedule went to 162 in 1962), the average number of extra-innings games played by a team is 14.4. We can model the number of extra-innings games played using a binomial distribution with a best-fit probability of about 9%. So, it’s not remarkably many; the Nats have 19 this year, and every season, we can expect about one team to have at least 20 extra-innings games.

However, a 15-2 record is very remarkable! We can well model the historical data with the naive assumption that every extra-innings win is a coin-toss: a binomial distribution with probability 50%. (I tried allowing some deviation from this assumption and found that the data will not support a fit allowing more than 1% standard deviation around 50%.) So for a team to win 15 of 17 is a probability of 1 in 964. Given that it’s somewhat rare for a team to play 17 games in the first place, we expect that this would almost never happen. In fact, under the assumptions of this model, we would expect to have to play MLB seasons for 574 years in order to find one that contains a 15-2 team at this point in the season (149 games in).

Conclusion: The Orioles 2012 extra-innings win-loss record is not well modelled by the same coin-toss distribution as the rest of the historical data. The Orioles (somehow) are good, not lucky.

Xerxes314
Guest
Xerxes314
3 years 11 months ago

Further analysis shows the data does support a small nonzero variation from the coin-toss assumption: about 1/3% standard deviation. For a 30-team league, that means we expect the best extra-innings team to have an infinite-games win probability of 50.6% and the worst to win only 49.4%. Under this new assumption, a 15-2 team would occur once every 571 years, so the major result is unchanged.

Xerxes314
Guest
Xerxes314
3 years 11 months ago

At 151 games in, a 16-2 team would occur once every 1315 years.

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