It is an easy area to mark for improvement in the 2020 season: the Orioles bullpen. The ‘pen pitchers posted a 5.63 ERA to rank 15th in the American League last year. The year before that, their ERA ranked 14th, but it was much better at 4.78.
The bullpen WHIP was almost equal going from 1.50 in 2018 to 1.51 in 2019. The OPS against went from .776 to .832. The team ‘pen had a better strikeout rate last year going from 8.12 to 8.60.
But the improvement moving forward could simply come from four pitchers that were counted on that saw their performance dip in 2019. Those four are Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro and Paul Fry.
Bleier was not only good in the previous year and years, he was excellent. The pitcher with lower velocity and a very low strikeout rate posted an ERA of 1.93 in 2018. And from 2016 through 2018, his ERA was 1.97 and his WHIP was 1.168. Last year, those numbers were 5.37 and 1.319.
That track record and health are reasons to be encouraged about Bleier. Not only did he have lat surgery mid-summer in 2018, he spent time on the injured list early last season. But as the year went on, he did pitch better with an ERA of 3.68 after the All-Star break and 2.93 in September. You have to like his chances for improvement, maybe huge improvement, year to year.
Givens’ ERA went up from 3.99 in 2018 to 4.57 last season. And in 2019, he posted career worsts in ERA, homers, homer rate and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). He also had the second-highest walk rate (5.0) of his five years in the majors, but did set a career best in strikeout rate (12.3).
For Givens, it may come down to the longball. His homer rate was 0.5 per nine innings in 2018 and 0.9 for his career. But it was 1.9 last season, which was 2.1 in home games. He has such good stuff, but too many times it found the middle of the plate. Fewer homers will lead to improvement.
Castro has teased us with his velocity, which was at its best last season, when he averaged 97.8 mph on his fastball per BrooksBaseball.net. But his ERA went from 3.96 in 2018 to 4.66. And he simply has been walking too many batters. After his walk rate was 3.8 in 2017, it went to 5.2 and 5.0 over the last two years. Get that number to a more workable level and he could become more consistent and dependable.
Fry’s ERA went from 3.35 to 5.34 and a walk rate of 4.6 per nine was a big factor for that. His ERA was 3.21 in mid-June 2019 and he was on his way to a solid year. But from that point to the end of the year, his ERA was 7.36 and he walked 18 over 29 1/3 innings. He’s got to lock in the command and control to return to the form of 2018 and the first part of 2019. No reason he can’t do that.
Shawn Armstrong could be included with this group in that his ERA went from 1.23 to 5.74 last season. But he pitched just 14 2/3 innings in 2018 at the major league level. Still, that was enough to show some promise that the Orioles hope is still there.
Harvey sure took to the bullpen role when he was moved there from the rotation in June at Double-A. Over his last 14 games of the 2019 season - seven each with Triple-A Norfolk and Baltimore - he posted a 1.17 ERA. Over 15 1/3 innings, he gave up seven hits and two runs with four walks and 26 strikeouts. That was exciting to watch and no doubt O’s fans are ready to see more of that.
One advantage for the Orioles for the coming season is a bullpen with a lot of optionable parts. Armstrong and Castro cannot be optioned, but everyone else mentioned here can be. If the O’s have to use the shuttle - and no doubt they will - they can with a lot of interchangeable parts.
There are reasons to expect bullpen improvement in the 2020 season. It could help the club be more competitive come March 26.