Zach Wilt: Praising the ‘pen

Ten years ago, baseball experts would say that winning one- or two-run games was what defined a great a team. Good teams find a way to win close games, bad teams lose them.

Sabremetrics and advanced baseball statistics have changed the way we think about the game today and now many would say that the Orioles’ 42-18 record in games decided by one or two runs this season is a fluke. Doubters see this as the stat that will ultimately lead to another collapse and say this trend is too historical to continue at its current pace.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the use of advanced statistics in baseball and I enjoy having my fellow nerds dig deeper into the box score. But I just can’t call this Orioles team lucky. They’re too talented for such a label.

What has been fascinating about this Orioles team is the consistency of their bullpen. Jim Johnson has successfully converted 37 of 40 save opportunities and is on a mission to beat Randy Myers’ club record of 45 in a single season. Myers set that mark in 1997, the Birds’ last winning season, and an All-Star year for the reliever.

Johnson’s set-up man, right-handed flamethrower Pedro Strop, hasn’t been half bad either. Coming into Tuesday, Strop has registered a 7.45 K/9, a .232 BABIP and leaves 87.7 percent of runners on base.

Of course, the key to any good bullpen is a manager that knows how to use those players. This is just part of the reason that I think Buck Showalter has to be the top Manager of the Year candidate. Without the right guy pushing the buttons, the team fails to compete in close affairs.

Just as Showalter deserves all the credit in the world for putting these players a position to succeed, general manager Dan Duquette should certainly be recognized for strengthening the pen this offseason.

Duquette acquired Dana Eveland (.239 OPP AVG against lefties this season) from the Dodgers in December, Matt Lindstrom (2.29 ERA in 32 appearances this season) from the Rockies and signed free agent Luis Ayala (2.91 ERA in 50 appearances) in February.

Ayala, a 34-year-old veteran of the Mexican League, has bounced around the big leagues, pitching for the Expos, Nationals, Mets, Twins, Marlins and Yankees. He has been one of Duquette’s best finds this offseason and an underrated story. Ayala appeared in 52 games for the Yankees in 2011 and has now had career years in back-to-back seasons. The increased use of his change-up (16.1 percent of his pitches this season) has made him a much more effective reliever and a valuable asset to the Orioles in the sixth and seventh innings.

I suppose you should also credit Duquette for the signing of Miguel Gonzalez (2.31 ERA in three appearances as a reliever), though he has been so good that he has become the Birds’ No. 2 starter.

With this corps, the Orioles have earned a remarkable 12-2 record in extra-inning games, 23-6 record in one-run games and 19-12 record in two-run games. They rank second in wins in match-ups decided by two runs behind the American League East-leading Yankees and National League Central-leading Reds.

A fluke or a good manager/GM combination? I’ll let you decide.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. His views appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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