“The difference between Tommy (Hunter) and Jimmy (Johnson) is that Jimmy had a track record,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter told the media after Hunter blew his third save of the season on Tuesday against the Tigers. “Tommy does, too, with certain other things, so there’s some unknown about where this will go with Tommy.”
A season ago, Johnson blew nine saves as the Orioles closer. The O’s ended up finishing the season 85-77, 6 1/2 games back of a wild card spot in the American League. Though many factors contribute to a team’s record, those nine blown saves were glaring and a big part of why the Birds finished their season in September rather than October.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about Showalter in his four-plus years in Baltimore, it’s that he’s very loyal to his players. He likes his guys, they even made a T-shirt about it. Last season, sticking with Johnson cost the O’s nine games. This season, it sounds as though Showalter isn’t willing to make that sacrifice while waiting for Hunter to climb out of this slump.
On Wednesday afternoon, that question wasn’t answered as the Orioles didn’t find themselves in a save situation. But if they did, who would Showalter turn to? Despite Hunter’s struggles, the Orioles bullpen has been more than efficient. They have posted a 3.89 ERA over 120 1/3 innings pitched, allowing 1.45 base runners per inning. Showalter has a number of options for the ninth, but each comes with a few questions.
Darren O’Day appears to be an obvious candidate for the gig. He’s posted a stellar 0.60 ERA over 15 innings of work out of the O’s ‘pen this season. He keeps runners off the bases (1.133 WHIP) and doesn’t allow many home runs (0.6 HR/9). My biggest concern with O’Day is his splits against left-handed batters. They are slashing .300/.318/.350 against him this season. By comparison, righties are hitting just .212/.316/.333.
Brian Matusz is another option for Showalter in the ninth, especially if David Ortiz is due up. Matusz has been stellar in relief, posting a 3.57 ERA in 63 innings combined between 2013 and this season (prior to Wednesday). His 8.3 K/9 is also enticing for closing out games. Just like O’Day though, the splits are a concern for Matusz. He’s been dominant against lefties, but right-handed batters have hit .333/.469/.458 against him in 2014.
I supposed that brings us to Zach Britton, who every Orioles beat writer or columnist has written about this season. He’s been fantastic in his new role, inducing 25 percent more ground balls in 2014 than he did in 2013. His .190 BABIP against is proof that the sinker is working. His strikeout numbers are a little low for a traditional closer, but it’s tough to argue against the 0.84 ERA he has posted this season. After three frustrating seasons in the big leagues, Britton has found a role that’s working well for him. My concern would be messing with his mojo. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Ryan Webb is also an intriguing candidate for the gig. His advanced metrics measured closely to Johnson’s and the Orioles signed him for a fraction of the price ($2.25 million compared to $10 million). Webb surrendered just one hit in his inning of work on Wednesday, lowering his ERA to 3.94. Prior to that inning, Webb had posted a 1.267 WHIP and allowed 8.4 hits per nine innings. His walk rate is a bit high for ninth (3.0 BB/9), but he’s looked solid in save situations this season (3 2/3 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K). That’s admittedly a small sample size.
My last candidate for the job is a guy that many may not have even considered. After calling up Kevin Gausman, the Orioles moved Miguel Gonzalez to the bullpen. Gonzalez pitched the fifth and sixth innings on Wednesday, allowing one run on two hits. He’s pitched in some big games for the Orioles the past couple of seasons and has appeared unfazed. Coming into Wednesday, opponents were hitting just .216 against him with runners in scoring position this season. I’m even more impressed with his numbers the first time through the batting order (.246/.317/.474 with five walks and 11 strikeouts). That average jumps up to .281 the second time through the order and .333 the third. Gonzalez would be worth a look in the ninth, and I could see him thriving in that role.
The thing I took away from diving into these numbers is that pitching that frame really isn’t easy. Maybe it’s a role that wasn’t meant for just one person. Sure, it’s three outs, just like any other inning, but it’s tough to find the perfect match to secure that W.
Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zamwi. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’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 MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.