Who will be the closer for the 2021 Orioles? Who knows today? But is it really that important for a rebuilding team?
The Orioles had five pitchers record saves last year. Cole Sulser was 5-for-8 in save chances, while César Valdez was 3-for-3. Miguel Castro was 1-for-3, Tanner Scott 1-for-2, Travis Lakins Sr. 1-for-1 and Thomas Eshelman 0-for-1. Sulser was the only player in the major leagues with two saves of at least two innings each. Scott picked up his first career save Aug. 23 versus Boston.
The outs in the seventh and eighth innings are just as important, and based on the managing style we have seen from Brandon Hyde over his two seasons, he is very aware of that fact. In 2019, he used Mychal Givens often in the seventh and eighth innings and not so much to close games. Last year, we often saw pitchers like Scott, Shawn Armstrong, Paul Fry, Dillon Tate and Hunter Harvey in the seventh and eighth.
They are high-leverage innings when a team has a lead and nine outs still to go. Depending upon where your opponent is in their lineup, the bigger outs versus tougher hitters can often come in the seventh and eighth. You need to hold the lead there to even have a chance to close it out in the ninth. They don’t provide a pitcher a save for his work in the seventh or eighth, but those can be the innings where the pitcher does the most heavy lifting.
And if you have a small lead in those innings and you can keep that lead, you are often going to win. In 2019, the Orioles went 47-7 when they led after seven innings and 52-7 when they led after eight. In 2020, they were 21-1 when leading after seven innings and 20-1 when leading after eight.
We may be moving away from the days where most of the top teams had one set closer. Managers in the current game almost seem to look at it as a three-inning save at the end of the game if they’re leading at that point. They have several high-leverage relievers and we have already named a few of them for the Orioles.
Pitchers can like it when they have very specific roles and there was a day when the Orioles had Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Zack Britton for the seventh, eighth and ninth, in that order. But the 2021 team won’t likely have it fall like that.
No doubt Hyde will have several high-leverage guys he can turn to. They’ll just need to be ready for anything - starting with the seventh.
How to manage those innings: It is a reasonable question to ask, so I asked it on Wednesday during a Zoom interview with O’s pitching coach/director of pitching Chris Holt.
During the 60-game season, right-hander Alex Cobb led all O’s pitchers, throwing 52 1/3 innings, and John Means was second at 43 2/3 innings. We know in normal years of 162 games that teams hope their starters can get 150 to 200 innings - and maybe a few more, if a lot breaks right with their health.
So will Orioles pitchers in 2021 be able to go from around 50 innings last summer to 150 or more? How will the club handle this?
“It’s a big question going on in the industry right now and I think that everybody’s consulting with medical and strength and conditioning, sports science,” Holt said.
“As far as what we know we have going into 2021, it’s always going to be a real-time read, whether they’re coming off a season where they threw 150 or a season where they threw 75 innings. So as far as consulting regularly with our medical staff, strength and conditioning, sports science, we will have a proactive approach toward managing innings, recovery and workload in 2021.”