The Orioles had a plan this offseason: Spend money to revamp an embarrassing bullpen that finished 29th out of 30 major league clubs.
They paid a total of $42 million to four veteran relievers - three signing for three years each - a risky proposition since bullpen help is the sport's most difficult commodity to predict from season to season. But, despite critical whispers from around the majors, the Orioles were undaunted, and refreshingly aggressive.
Now, with only a month remaining in the season and after the worst relief-pitching week in club history, the Orioles' bullpen is exactly where it was at the end of last year: holding the second-worst ERA in the majors.
Stunningly, this renovated bullpen is probably in worse shape than last year's now that closer Chris Ray will miss 2008 because of recent elbow surgery. The Orioles ended last season with a 5.25 bullpen ERA, ahead of only the Kansas City Royals. Heading into their Aug. 22 doubleheader, the Orioles owned a mediocre - but improved - 4.89 mark.
In baseball's version of Hell Week, though, the Orioles' bullpen leaked an incomprehensible 52 runs in 21 innings during the first seven games of this losing streak, plunging it to 29th in the majors before last night's game. That span included the infamous 30-3 defeat to the Texas Rangers that featured three relievers surrendering 24 runs.
In those seven consecutive losses, the bullpen ERA rose nearly a full point, from 4.89 to 5.85. The club's overall ERA went from 4.39 to 4.79.
"A huge anomaly, a blip, an awful week," executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "The overall numbers do not look good, but a week ago we were in the middle of the pack."
Up and down
The Orioles might have been alone in their offseason free-agent reliever plunge and in their nightmare of the past week, but they have plenty of company when it comes to misjudging or overrating their relief corps.
Simply put, it's nearly impossible to know how a relief pitcher, and consequently a bullpen, will fare from one year to the next. So even the most prepared - or wealthiest - teams have trouble getting consistency in the bullpen.
Case in point: In the past five full seasons, only the Los Angeles Angels have finished in the top 10 in bullpen ERA every year. Conversely, only two teams, the Colorado Rockies and Royals, finished in the bottom 10 in each of those five seasons.
"This is obviously the greatest area of volatility in baseball," said Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro, whose Indians finished 26th overall in bullpen ERA in 2004, first in 2005 and then 24th in 2006.
"I can't give definitive reasons why," Shapiro said. "Some potential reasons are that bullpen guys are usually bullpen guys for a reason; that they have some flaw that did not allow them to be starters. And the best bullpen guys get overused by everybody."
Nate Silver, who created Baseball Prospectus' player projection system, said it's rare to find middle relievers who remain effective for consecutive years, so most teams don't have deep units from season to season.
"I think it gets back to the fact you're talking about guys who only throw 50 or 60 innings, and it's hard to learn a lot from that," he said. "You're also talking about guys ... preselected for their jobs because of a lack of durability."
San Diego success
Silver said teams would benefit from looking past saves and ERAs and instead focusing on strikeout rates and ground ball-to-fly ball ratios. But he said luck is a huge part of assembling a good bullpen. So he wouldn't sink a lot of money or contract years into relievers - other than elite closers.
That is the blueprint for San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who has built a reputation for finding quality relievers at a discounted price. All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman is in the second season of a two-year, $13.5 million extension. No other Padres reliever makes more than $500,000. Yet the Padres are second in the majors in bullpen ERA.
"You can build a bullpen for the price of a No. 1 starter," Towers said. "And that bullpen will win you a hell of a lot more games over the course of a season than a No. 1 starter."
Towers said part of the credit for his successful bullpen is the Padres' spacious ballpark. But he said the club begins scouring for next year's relievers during the current season, attempting to find strike-throwers who need opportunities.
"It is a key part of building a competitive club," Towers said. "If you have no 'pen, it's very difficult to contend."
Shapiro signed his current closer, Joe Borowski, to a one-year, $4.25 million deal this offseason. He's leading the AL in saves despite an ERA well over 5.00.
"My philosophy is do as much as possible from within," Shapiro said. "But without that it would be to look for flexibility and alternatives, because you are going to have to adjust on the fly."