For months, the question lingered: Are the Orioles going to have enough pitching to win in the playoffs?
Until the middle of next week, at the earliest, it’s basically unknowable. The Orioles keep winning, yes, but most of the times they don’t win feature a concerning development or three on the mound. This is a question worth asking.
It would help, then, to know what that actual number is. We’ve seen for years that teams shorten their rotations in the postseason, and the built-in days off in the playoff schedule mean relievers are available more often than in the regular season as well.
How would that impact what the Orioles try to do on the mound in October? Well, past precedent shows that can vary significantly. And the Orioles’ ability to meet the minimum demands for reliable pitching coming from pitchers either new to their roster or roles adds even wider variance to their case.
Last year’s World Series champions, the Houston Astros, rode their top pitchers almost exclusively. Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez started four games apiece, with Lance McCullers Jr. starting three and Cristian Javier two.
They also kept their bullpen’s usage pretty concentrated. While eight relievers appeared in the postseason, they leaned on four in leverage situations. Closer Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero and Bryan Abreu had 10 appearances apiece, while Héctor Neris appeared in eight games.
As far as caveats go, this requires a big one. They lost only twice, so the Astros played just 13 playoff games –a best-case scenario for a team trying to get by with only a handful of pitchers.
The runner-up Phillies played 16 games and as such utilized their bullpen more often, and in greater depth, than Houston had to. Jose Alvarado had a postseason-high 12 appearances, while Zach Eflin had 10 and Seranthony Domīnguez had nine. Two more had eight appearances, and still another pair had seven apiece. That’s four pitchers appearing in at least half of their games and two more on the cusp of it.
The 2021 World Series-champion Atlanta Braves rode three starters – Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson – for most of their 15-game run while mixing in a fourth starter when needed. They had some long relief options in the bullpen, which helped, but relied on Tyler Matzek (13 appearances), Will Smith (11) and Luke Jackson (11) most in short relief. A.J. Minter had eight appearances out of the bullpen, while no one else had more than six.
They beat an Astros team that had a much more taxing playoff run in 2021 than 2022. Their starters struggled badly, with Luis Garcīa and Valdez each starting five games with ERAs around 8. José Urquidy, McCullers and Zack Greinke made two starts apiece. That, naturally, left a lot of work to go around in the bullpen.
Ryne Stanek made 13 appearances and Phil Maton 12 to lead Astros relievers, while Yimi García (10), Pressly (9), Kendall Graveman (9) and Brooks Raley (8) appeared in at least half of Houston’s 16 postseason games.
The 2020 Tampa Bay Rays had probably the most demanding set of pitching circumstances. They played 20 postseason games, relying primarily on three starters (Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Morton) who started 16 games. Their bullpen was heavily used. Six pitchers had nine or 10 appearances.
Those Rays lost to a Los Angeles Dodgers team that spread its pitching burden around in that shortened season as well. The Dodgers let Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler start five games apiece, with Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin starting three apiece while also appearing out of the bullpen. They used five relievers at least eight times.
The part where a team might need only three or four starters isn’t necessarily a revelation. The teams that got by with four reliable relievers probably will give the Orioles comfort. The idea of going five and six deep into the bullpen on a regular basis probably doesn’t.
At least at this point, the rotation seems like it’s set up well. Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez pitching Tuesday and Wednesday sets them up to be the first two playoff starters, one would assume. They’ve been outstanding, especially in the second half.
John Means has probably pitched himself into the No. 3 spot, Kyle Gibson’s Sunday start notwithstanding, though Dean Kremer’s full-season résumé certainly warrants inclusion as well.
Either way, it seems now that one of those three will be the Game 3 starter, with the other two joining Jack Flaherty in the bullpen. Whichever of Kremer or Gibson is fresher could start if necessary later in a series.
It would probably be more helpful to the Orioles if one or two of those displaced starters became someone who could bridge to the back of the bullpen with six outs or so every other game, because that’s clearly going to be where things get hairy for the Orioles next month.
This space is not one where Félix Bautista’s return is considered a possibility, let alone a likelihood. If he were healthy, he would be considered one of those shoo-in reliable types. And that would mean Yennier Cano and Danny Coulombe would be back in their preferred setup roles.
As it stands, those two are going to see a lot of work in the playoffs. Cionel Pérez may as weIl. Jacob Webb and Shintaro Fujinami may be on the roster to soak up innings if games get out of hand.
The names themselves have helped the Orioles win a lot of games, against playoff teams no less, but collectively feel light for a long postseason.
Fortunately for manager Brandon Hyde and the Orioles, there are wild cards. DL Hall is probably almost graduating from that stage into late-inning fixture. He’s fresh, he’s throwing strikes, and he has weapons to get lefties and righties out.
Tyler Wells, back in the bullpen after he collapsed out of the rotation after the All-Star break, has the potential to be dominant out of the bullpen if his stuff is anywhere near his first-half levels. To a lesser extent, Kremer and Flaherty seem like the type of pitcher who could have his stuff tick up in shorter spurts as well.
It’s not really uncommon for the Orioles to wonder where the relief outs are going to come from. They felt that way entering 2022 before Jorge López, Bautista, Pérez and Dillon Tate emerged, and again this spring when Tate and Mychal Givens were injured to start the year, allowing room for Cano and Coulombe to step up.
No one likes an unknown. The group of Hall, Wells and the displaced starters is not one of total unknowns. Those pitchers have pedigrees, track records of success or both, and they are players who in the right role can make a difference for the Orioles.
A team would probably want to go into October knowing what it has on the mound. The Orioles won’t be in that position. Their good fortune, to the extent anyone with that lot can have good fortune, is that there’s the talent involved to have it work out as well as, well, pretty much everything else does for them.