Can the Orioles bullpen be 2012 good again?

There is a baseball theory out there, and plenty of evidence behind it, that says relief pitchers and entire bullpens for that matter, are volatile and likely to see big swings in performance from year to year. There sure seem to be fewer relief pitchers than starters who can be counted on to produce top stats every season.

Some believe closers are overrated and that you should seldom, maybe never, give bullpen pitchers multi-year contracts because of that volatility.

So where does that leave the Orioles bullpen for 2013 coming off its excellent performance in 2012?

Yes, it may be asking a lot to expect similar numbers next season, but at the same time, the Orioles were not the AL leaders in ‘pen ERA - they were third behind Tampa Bay and Oakland - and their collective opponents’ batting average of .238 looks good, but that was the league average for relievers last season.

How about some of the individual pitchers, didn’t they have career years? Not really.

While Jim Johnson went 2-1 with a 2.49 ERA and a major league-leading 51 saves, he had a similar ERA, WHIP and strikeout-to-walks ratio in 2011. Yes, Johnson never had 51 saves before, but he was never the regular closer before either.

Darren O’Day was amazing, going 7-1 with a 2.28 ERA. But in 2010 with Texas, he had a better ERA and fewer hits per nine innings. While O’Day’s WHIP of 0.94 was excellent last year, it was 0.88 for the 2010 Rangers.

Luis Ayala went 5-5 with a 2.64 ERA for the Orioles, but his ERA and hits per nine innings were better the previous year with New York and his WHIP was the same.

Pedro Strop, who had a good campaign, had never pitched over 22 innings in a season until last year. Troy Patton was 5-2 with a 2.44 ERA for the Orioles, but he had pitched to a 3.00 ERA with a better WHIP in 2011 for Baltimore.

Three pitchers who excelled in relief late in the year were Brian Matusz, Steve Johnson and Tommy Hunter. Johnson had a 1.10 ERA and a .127 average against in eight bullpen outings while Hunter went 3-0 with a 0.71 ERA in 10 games in September.

Hunter’s velocity jump in the ‘pen was striking. He averaged 91-92 mph as a starter and then was at 96, 98 and, for one game, 99 out of the bullpen. Click here to see Fangraphs velocity charts for Hunter in 2012.

So what does this all mean?

To me, it means the Orioles have a solid bullpen and they do have a chance to be very good again. A case could be made that none of their pitchers had career years and while the ‘pen’s performance was real solid, there were other bullpens that posted similar and/or better numbers in several key statistical areas.

The bullpen figures to be a strength again for the Orioles in 2013.

Minor league notes: The Norfolk Tides, the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, is expected to use two field coaches this year - one more than many minor league teams employ. Denny Walling is expected to return to the Tides after serving as the club’s batting coach last season. Walling has served as the major league hitting coach for the Mets (2003-04) and A’s (1996-98) and was the Orioles’ minor league roving hitting instructor from 2005-11.

Jose Hernandez is expected to join him as a Tides coach. Hernandez will be entering his fourth season in the Orioles’ farm system. He was a coach in 2010 for the Gulf Coast League Orioles, in 2011 for Single-A Delmarva and in 2012 for Single-A Frederick.

Ron Johnson will return as Tides manager and so will Mike Griffin as pitching coach.

As we reported here in November, Gary Kendall is expected back as manager for Double-A Bowie with Ryan Minor moving from Delmarva to manage at Frederick and Luis Pujols joining the organization as Delmarva’s skipper.

The Orioles continue to search for a new minor league infield instructor after Bobby Dickerson was moved from that position to serve as the Orioles’ third base coach in 2013.

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