05 April 2016

Orioles' Bullpen Could Be Dominant With A Healthy And Rejuvenated Dylan Bundy

If the Orioles do nothing else, they should excel in two areas this season: hitting home runs and pitching well out of the bullpen. Last season, the O's had one of the best bullpens in the majors. In terms of fWAR (6.4), they ranked first and finished a win better than the next closest team. They were also fifth in ERA (3.21), sixth in FIP (3.48), sixth in K/9 (8.98), t-16th in BB/9 (3.33), and third in GB% (48.7).

Buck Showalter's three most-used weapons out of the bullpen last year were Brad Brach (79.1 IP), Zach Britton (65.2 IP), and Darren O'Day (65.1 IP). All three had strikeout rates over 10. While Brach was merely good, with a 4.31 walk rate weighing his numbers down a bit (2.72 ERA/3.47 FIP), Britton and O'Day were phenomenal (more on those two at the bottom).

Three other trusted relievers last season -- Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, and Chaz Roe -- were not on the Orioles' opening day roster. Hunter is gone, shipped away at last year's trade deadline. As a free agent, he signed with Cleveland in the offseason. Matusz is currently on the disabled list, though he could return soon. And Roe recently went unclaimed on waivers and will start the year with Triple-A Norfolk.

So that leaves some interesting names to fill out the bullpen. There's Mychal Givens, who was tremendous in 30 innings of work last season and could have a very bright future. Tyler Wilson and Vance Worley could both receive starting and relief work this year depending on Kevin Gausman's health and the effectiveness of the rest of the rotation. Mike Wright, currently in the rotation as the No. 4 starter, could certainly find himself in a relief role later in the year as well. T.J. McFarland is the only left-handed pitcher in the bullpen besides Britton. He's a long-man type, but it's not out of the question he gets used in a matchup role until Matusz returns.

And then there's the wild card: Dylan Bundy. Anyone familiar with the Bundy hype train of years past is aware of the talent he possesses. And since he's battled back from injury and is back in the majors, we are focusing on him today with our Bundy Bash. The O's are used to pitching prospects failing to achieve lofty expectations, but Bundy still has a chance to shine.

At the moment, it's unclear what role Bundy, who must be on the major league roster, will fill. Will he receive mop-up work? How many innings will he pitch at a time? Could he even start a game this season? Regardless, just having him healthy is cause for celebration.

The most likely scenario for Bundy is that he'll have a controlled workload that the O's could ramp-up over time. He hasn't pitched in a non-spring training game since May 21, after which he was shut down because of right shoulder inflammation. For now, at least, resting seems to have worked for him. Bundy's strong performance this spring was one highlight in a busy and bizarre offseason.

Bundy, 23, is saying all the right things that you'd expect from someone who is tired of being hurt and just wants to pitch: "I'm just here to compete and whenever they need me I'll pitch. I don't really care what role that is. I'll just go out there and eat up innings and do my job."

Roch Kubatko of MASN also noted that Bundy hasn't been used on back-to-back days yet. Considering Bundy's recovery (and that we're talking about spring training outings), it's not surprising that he's being brought along slowly. But it's also worth noting that if anyone won't overwork a bullpen or has a feel for reliever workload, it's Showalter. He doesn't like using relievers on back-to-back days, if he can avoid it:
Orioles manager Buck Showalter is a little unique in his handling of his pen. They lead the majors in relief appearances of more than one inning with 106. . . .What Showalter prefers to avoid is using a reliever on two consecutive days, let alone three. Tommy Hunter, now with the Cubs, is the only Orioles reliever to appear in three straight days this year, which he did once. Showalter has used a reliever on consecutive days just 44 times.
Even if there's a small chance, the Orioles hope that Bundy is able to pitch as a starter again in the future. Showalter has even hinted that it could be a possibility later in the year. It would be a tremendous coup to both get him through this season and eventually see him in the rotation again. Within realistic expectations, there's only so much Bundy will be able to contribute for the Orioles this season. The key is to do whatever it takes to keep him healthy. But as they're aware of, with Britton's dominance and to a lesser extent with Matusz, there is still value in having pitchers not completely flame out (or, you know, dominating for other teams).

Even if Bundy ends up not pitching well, the Orioles' bullpen still projects to be outstanding. But if he is healthy and throwing flames, then that makes the bullpen a little stronger, a little more well-rounded. The roles of Britton (closer) and O'Day (set-up man) are set in stone, while Givens and Brach will battle it out to see who gets regular seventh-inning work. If/when Matusz returns, he'll resume the left-handed specialist role. Anything else is basically up for grabs.

Bundy likely won't pitch more than a couple innings at a time, preferably in low-leverage situations. But things can change in a hurry. Just ask Britton, who was nearly traded before the 2014 season before eventually grabbing hold of the closer's role after Hunter's injury/ineffectiveness. Britton hasn't looked back. Injuries happen, and relievers can have bad seasons. Bundy could end up having an uneventful 2016, which would definitely be welcomed if he's able to avoid the disabled list. But he could also end up contributing more. Considering where he's been, that would be something special.


More on Britton and O'Day:

Britton's full-time shift to closer in 2014 has been well told, and he was already pretty good that season. He kept the ball on the ground and in the ballpark, posting a ridiculous 1.65 ERA that didn't exactly match his peripherals (7.31 K/9, 2.71 BB/9, .215 BABIP). And yet, somehow Britton in 2015 blew the 2014 version out of the water. He threw about 10 fewer innings, but he increased his strikeout rate by about 3.5 per nine innings, dropped his walk rate under 2, cut his home run rate a tiny bit more, and even managed to increase his already low groundball rate from the year before (from 75.3% to 79.1%). And he did all that while posting a BABIP that was 93 points higher.

Like Britton, O'Day raised his game last season as well. He posted a career best K/9 of 11.3 despite never previously topping 10. With his funky delivery and pitch repertoire tinkering, O'Day has posted an ERA under 2.3 in every season since joining the O's in 2012. Somehow, that number has also dropped every year: 2.28 in 2012, 2.18 in 2013, 1.7 in 2014, to 1.52 in 2015. Perhaps in the past, we'd explain a chunk of that away as good fortune, particularly because those results don't match his fielding independent numbers. But even before joining the Orioles, O'Day had demonstrated the ability to outpitch his peripherals; plus, four seasons of work with the O's, even if only about 262 innings, is still a pretty good sample size for a reliever. O'Day has been very good, and while that doesn't mean he'll continue to be great, there doesn't appear to be concern for 2016.

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