The Orioles, who on Monday completed a four-game sweep of the Athletics (BAL 4, OAK 2), are right now in playoff position. That's in keeping with recent history, as the O's under manager Buck Showalter are angling to make the postseason for the third time in four years. Some of that success is owing to Showalter's ability to make the most of his pitching staff.
Once again, the O's don't have a certifiable ace on the roster. Wei-Yin Chen and Ubaldo Jimenez have been solid enough, but neither is a true frontline guy. As well, Baltimore lacks rotation depth and has struggled to find a reliable fifth starter all year. So what's the Showalter blueprint for getting the most from an underwhelming staff? It goes a little something like this ...
Don't let starters face the opposing lineup too many times in a given game.
When you don't have an ace on the staff, it's wise to be especially mindful of the "Times Through the Order" penalty. That's the measurable degradation of pitcher performance that occurs when a lineup sees a given starter multiple times in a game, especially the third time or more. It's a very real phenomenon. Managers regularly ignore this, of course, and sometimes it's out of necessity (you don't want to run your bullpen in the ground by late June, for instance). However, when the bullpen is able to carry the weight and when the starter of note is willing to accept such limitations, it's wise to keep starters from facing a particular batter three or more times in an outing.
This season, 28.8 percent of the average AL starter's batters faced have come during the third or fourth time through the order. For the Orioles this season, that figure is 26.8 percent. That doesn't sound like a huge difference but scaled to a near-full season, it matters. To be sure, this isn't always a managerial decision at work, as the pitcher's effectiveness of course has a say in how long he stays in the game. However, this effect surely isn't lost on a manager like Showalter.
Stretch your relievers out.
The O's rank seventh in the AL with 361 bullpen innings. However, they rank next to last in the AL with 301 relief appearances. That's a serious disconnect, to say the least. What's at work is Showalter's preference to stretch his relievers out. For instance, among AL teams only the Yankees have recorded more multi-inning relief outings this season, and the O's lead the AL in relief outings that span more than three outs and outs per relief outing.
Keep relievers fresh by spacing out appearances.
Orioles relievers pitch more than most, as that innings total will tell you, but Showalter keeps the workload manageable by not calling on them as often as you'd think, as the games relieved total will tell you. Here's another way to think about: The Orioles this season have logged the fewest relief outings on zero days' rest of any AL team, and it's not close. They have 45 such appearances in 2015. Next are the Yankees with 56. The AL average this season is 74. The Tigers have the most with 105. The modern relief playbook is usually set roles, one-inning outings, frequent appearances. Showalter's turned all of that upside down while at the same time leaning on his relief corps. The results have been promising: Baltimore ranks fifth in the AL in bullpen runs/game and second in WAR.
Give the most important innings to your best relievers.
This one's not hard. The Orioles' two best relievers this season have been Zach Britton (1.88 ERA/1.88 FIP) and Darren O'Day (1.19 ERA/2.56 FIP). When it comes to Leverage Index, which measures the average importance of a reliever's innings (e.g., ninth inning, one-run lead is high-leverage; ninth-inning, 11-2 game, is low-leverage), we find that the O's most critical relief innings have been worked by Britton and O'Day. Next in the leverage line? Brad Brach: 2.51 ERA, 3.14 FIP. Showalter knows how to match up his best relievers with the most critical spots.
And that's how you put your team on target for the playoffs, again, despite an on-paper rotation that seems anything but capable of such a feat.