There are at least a few things about the Orioles that should have you excited for the upcoming season. In no particular order: Manny Machado, healthy versions of Chris Davis and Adam Jones, Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy's first year as a full-time starter, a lineup that should hit plenty of dingers, Hyun Soo Kim's sophomore MLB season, and more. It's hard to top anything Machado does, but here's another big one: a bullpen that has a chance to be sensational.
Last year, the trio of Zach Britton, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens was outstanding. They should again be a nasty group to deal with. Britton put the finishing touches on one of the very best relief seasons of all time. Brach started out on fire and made the all-star team, although he slumped a bit in the second half. And Givens showed how useful he can be, especially if his numbers improve against left-handed batters.
Overall, the bullpen finished first in the American League in ERA (3.40), t-second in strand rate (77.3%), sixth in groundball rate (46.3%), and first in win probability added, all the while finishing just 11th best in strikeouts per nine and 12th best in walks per nine.
One of the most interesting things about the bullpen's outstanding performance in 2016 is they accomplished what they did without a healthy and effective Darren O'Day (though Bundy gave them a nice boost for a while). After throwing at least 62 innings in the previous four seasons, O'Day only threw half that in 2016 as he battled two injuries.
O'Day went on the disabled list in early June because of a strained right hamstring, and he wasn't activated until late July. Then in mid-August, he again headed to the disabled list, this time due to a strained right rotator cuff. Apparently O'Day tried to pitch through the pain, which understandably did not help. When he returned about a month later, he pitched a few more times and started to resemble the O'Day fans had come to expect. He appeared in the O's now infamous wild card loss to the Blue Jays, recording five outs while facing just four batters (thanks to this enormous double play).
There's almost no chance Britton can duplicate his truly amazing season, and maybe Brach will take a step backward as well. But if O'Day is anything close to his 2012-2015 self, the Orioles will have something special on their hands. In his injury-plagued 2016, O'Day posted a 3.77 ERA and a 4.57 FIP. Yet from 2012-2015, O'Day's ERA dropped every year (2.28, 2.18, 1.70, 1.52), and his RA/9 nearly did as well (2.28, 2.32, 1.83, 1.79).
Because he doesn't always post great strikeout rates and isn't a groundball-inducing machine, O'Day doesn't typically put up wonderful fielding pitching independent numbers. That's a large reason why in his first four years in Baltimore, Baseball-Reference has him worth nearly 10 wins above replacement, and FanGraphs pegs him closer to five. If you want to see just how amazing O'Day was in that time span, just look at the following table from Baseball-Reference's indispensable Play Index:
Some of the very best relievers in baseball are on that list. The Yankees just gave Aroldis Chapman $86 million over five years. Kenley Jansen received a contract for $6 million less over that same time frame. O'Day isn't in their class in terms overpowering the opposition and just reaching back and throwing the ball by hitters. But he gets outs -- plenty of them -- when he's healthy. That matters.
Before last season, the Orioles rewarded O'Day with a four-year, $31 million contract. So they clearly value his work. But you still get the sense that he's undervalued -- that Beyond The Box Score article linked above didn't even mention O'Day -- and even a bullpen that already projects to be excellent can use another relief weapon.
You can't predict health, and at 34 years old, O'Day is the eldest member of the O's relief options. Still, during an Orioles' spring training filled with frequent updates on injuries to players like Chris Tillman, Britton, J.J. Hardy, Seth Smith, Michael Bourn, and others, O'Day has fortunately been spared. If O'Day is indeed able to get back to his dominant, freewheeling, elevated-fastball and frisbee-slider-tossing ways, opposing batters will be in even more trouble against the Orioles in late-game situations.
Photo via Keith Allison