The "Moneyball" crowd in Oakland, Toronto and Boston isn't the only group that has novel ideas about how baseball should be played. This season, the Orioles have introduced a radical new idea about how to construct a bullpen. So far, it has saved a season that otherwise could have been ruined by the failures of an inexperienced and, so far, inept young rotation.
Instead of worshipping the supposed "percentages" and going by "the book," always seeking to match left-handed relievers against left-handed hitters and right-handers against right-handers, the Orioles are simply waving in "the next best pitcher." Then, instead of using several relievers in one inning, the Orioles are leaving their best available man on the mound for one to three innings, rather than one to three batters.
"What on earth is he doing?" managers, players and fans have been saying since Opening Day when, with the very first managerial decision of his career, Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli called in Rodrigo Lopez, a right-handed reliever, to face a left-handed batter. Lopez proceeded to pitch 11/3 shutout innings, and the Orioles won.
"We finally got sick of seeing our games being lost by our 11th or 12th best pitcher in some matchup situation," said co-general manager Mike Flanagan. "Too often, we never even got the game into the hands of our closer because we'd lost somewhere along the way with one of our worst pitchers. Now, we usually only warm up one reliever, then we bring him in -- our Next Best Pitcher -- regardless of who is hitting."
Get the smelling salts. Somewhere Sparky (Captain Hook) Anderson is fanning his brow. Why, if this trend gains credibility, how will fans catch their 15-minute catnaps as endless relievers spend eons warming up after meandering to the mound? On Thursday, Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, a serial matchup recidivist, used six pitchers to get seven outs. That night, the Reds used five pitchers in the span of seven outs.
Not only have the Orioles made their games more enjoyable to watch, their decision to rip up the book and spit on the percentages has probably prevented an early-season disaster. Baltimore gambled on starting its season with four starting pitchers with a total of 10 career big league wins. That novel concept has bombed so far. The Orioles' rotation has only six wins and a 5.20 ERA. The bullpen has eight wins, a 2.67 ERA and three-quarters as many innings as the starters (108 to 138).
What we have here is a bullpen that pitches almost as much as the starters and has more wins! If it weren't for Lopez, B.J. Ryan and Rick Bauer, the primary subjects of this experiment who have averaged about two innings per appearance and an ERA around 2, the Orioles might be in turmoil instead of above .500.
For the last 25 years, and increasingly with time, bullpens have been built around specialists -- sometimes side-armers or one-pitch wonders -- who dominate hitters of the same hand, but are instantly vulnerable when the matchup goes against them. Now, thank heavens, the Orioles are trying to blow this whole over-managing tradition to smithereens. They're calling their best rested arm, then telling him to, "Go get 'em," until he's tired or it's time to wave for closer Jorge Julio to finish the show.
"You need pitchers with better stuff to do it this way," says Flanagan. "But we have them, so we'll take advantage of it."
In theory, the Orioles feel they can now hold their powder longer than rivals. "We stack out [offensive] lineup left-right-left-right all the way down," said Flanagan. "If other teams want to match up with us in the middle innings, they'll be out of [quality] pitchers later. We saw that happen to us too many times."
In this new system, Lopez and Ryan have sparkled in particular, although more traditional one-inning pitchers such as Julio and Buddy Groom (with a combined 21 appearances, 222/3 innings and a 0.81 ERA) have flourished, too. Mazzilli has given Ryan pep talks, telling him how much his former team, the Yankees, hated to face him and that Ryan has the electric southpaw stuff to get out hitters on either side of the plate. With 23 strikeouts in 17 innings and a 2.12 ERA, Ryan may finally develop the arrogance to be a star.
Lopez, on the other hand, is a conundrum. Shouldn't a man who has allowed only one run in 241/3 innings be put back in the rotation where he was 15-9 two years ago?
"Where would we be without him [in the bullpen]?" says Mazzilli. Instead of helping the Orioles once every five days, Lopez sometimes saves their bacon three times a week with his multi-inning work.
Flanagan saw the value of a pitcher like Lopez long ago when Sammy Stewart was an all-purpose pitcher for Earl Weaver. Some men start, some finish, but others just seem to find their place in the game's middle. "It's tough when someone is a good framer to change him into a finish carpenter," says Flanagan of Lopez.
If the Orioles ever establish a solid rotation, a moot point at the moment, they have such a strong bullpen behind them that they may trim down to just 10 pitchers. Yes, 10. Pure heresy. Is this 1956? Most teams now have 12. "If we can trust several relievers to work [multiple] innings, and our starters are taking us deep into most games, that would give us the flexibility to carry two extra hitters," said Flanagan.
The current rotation is a monumental "if." Though the Orioles have promising arms in the minors, they want to take a long look at what they now hold. "We have not seen their best yet," said Flanagan of his infant starters. "They are more veteran in their attitude than they look. Matt Riley, Erik Bedard, Eric DuBose and Kurt Ainsworth have all had major arm surgery. They've all experienced adversity. That toughens you. Let's let them have some time to show what they can do."
So far, the success of the team's next-best-pitcher theory has given them that time. To show proper appreciation, when the bullpen gate swings open at Camden Yards, maybe the Orioles should play that old Warren Zevon rocker: "I appreciate the best. But I'm settling for less. 'Cause I'm looking for the next best thing."