Heath Bintliff: What a relief it is

For the first time in years, I am loving the Orioles bullpen.

I loved them when they broke camp. I thought it was almost perfectly constructed, given the personnel on hand and they are performing admirably.

Over the past 14 years of losing, the bullpen has ranked among the worst in baseball, year in and year out. Sure, there were a couple of exceptions, but Orioles bullpens of the aughts and beyond have generally provided the proverbial gasoline on the starting staff’s fires.

Not in 2012. The bullpen has posted a 2.26 ERA, third-best in the American League, and leads have felt safer than they have in more than a decade.

Leading the way is the new closer, Jim Johnson. Johnson, a homegrown Oriole, took over the ninth-inning duties late last season and has cemented himself in that role this season. Johnson has been the best bullpen arm for a few seasons now but the team kept looking outside the organization and paid big money to so-called proven closers Mike Gonzalez ($12 million over two seasons) and Kevin Gregg ($10 million over two seasons).

Gonzalez produced just two saves during his stay, Gregg has saved 22. Johnson has converted 16 saves in just about two months on the job and leads the league with seven saves in 2012. So much for needing a proven closer. Jonson’s been a bit lucky to have not given up an earned run this season but when hitters are hittng grounders 68.2 percent of the time they put it in play, you’ll make your own luck.

Then there are the pair of fireballers, Pedro Strop and Matt Lindstrom. Both boast 95 mph fastball and pile up the strikeouts. Both have a K/BB ratio of 3.00 or above. Both came to Baltimore via trade; Strop was the player to be named when the O’s shipped the aforementioned Gonzalez out to Texas and Lindstrom came from the Rockies with Jason Hammel for Jeremy Guthrie. And they lead all Oriole relief pitchers in WAR for the young season. You have to like the chances of these strikeout artists coming on in the seventh or eighth and getting the ball to Johnson in the ninth.

Darren O’Day, another former Ranger, has been utilizing his wicked slider to fool hitters this season. He leads the team in swinging strike percentage (12.9 percent), first-pitch strike percentage (67.9 percnt) and swing percentage of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (36.5 percent). His fastball has averaged just 84 mph in 2012, but he’s managing to get strikes at Strop-like rates.

Luis Ayala is doing the same thing he has done for eight seasons: slider, changup and a two-seam fastball. Ayala can still get his fastball up over 90 mph, limits his walks and keeps the ball in the park.

Troy Patton is the last man left in the organization from the original Miguel Tejada trade. He has battled injuries ever since, but I was pulling for the guy this spring training. He pitched well late last season and I think he has the talent to be an excellent and versatile reliever for the Orioles. All he needs are big league innings and health. Patton has struggled a bit early but his xFIP is pretty good (4.16 xFIP) and he has limited his walks. I think we’re going to see good things from this lefty as the season progresses.

The elephant in the room is Gregg, the highest-paid reliever on the team. He’s been awful. O’s relievers have given up 13 earned runs this season; Gregg has given up five of them. He’s walked more than he’s struck out and all the advanced pitching metrics suggest that he is just as bad as his traditional stat line says. The silver lining to this is that Gregg will either get much better, quickly, or he will be released.

And if Gregg is released, who takes his place? There are a lot of good arms at Triple-A Norfolk and many are pitching well. If you want to bring up a long man, Dana Eveland, Steve Johnson and Jason Berken are all pitching well in the Tides’ rotation. And out of the ‘pen, Zach Phillips, Pat Neshek, Miguel Socolovich ans Miguel Gonzalez all have had some early success.

It’s a relief corps not built around high-priced free agents but a mix of inexpensive veterans, homegrown talent, waiver claims and PTBNs. And it’s refreshing to see.

Heath Bintliff blogs about the Orioles at Dempsey’s Army. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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