Newly acquired relievers settle bullpen
Mazzone more at ease with veteran arms leading the way
JUPITER, Fla. -- Taken separately, the numbers mean nothing. Collectively, they begin to take on a little more focus. Through two weeks of exhibition games, the Orioles have been nearly perfect in the bullpen. Incumbent closer Chris Ray and Baltimore's four new relievers have combined for a 0.87 ERA in a little more than 20 innings.
Obviously, since spring stats don't count, any early analysis is fraught with peril. But after spending $40 million on relievers this offseason, the O's will be watching the results carefully. Veterans Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson weren't just brought in to pitch -- they were brought in to change the culture.
"It doesn't surprise me that they've done well in the spring. They're quality people and good pitchers," said Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo, speaking about the climate change in the bullpen. "It's nice to see the guys come in that are veterans take it upon themsleves to go about their business the right way and be able to pitch."
Being able to pitch is only part of the job. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone has lauded his relievers for knowing how to prepare and passing the lessons on to their peers. In fact, he's gone so far as to let Walker and Bradford plot their own course, allowing them to choose their road trips and prepare at their own pace.
Contrast that with last year, when Mazzone found himself force-feeding his pitching philosophy to a largely untested group of relievers. Mazzone ran the camp his way, and during the season, he often referred to that bullpen as a year-long "tryout camp." Now, with pitchers like Walker and Bradford, he can back off a bit.
"They're all like that. They go about their business and they know how to be professional," Mazzone said. "They know how to be serious and they know how to have some fun. They prepare and they're conscientious. It's the intangible type of thing. And that's the way it's supposed to be. That's the only thing I've ever known in my career."
So far this spring, most of Baltimore's relievers have only known success. Ray, Walker and Williamson have combined for 10 scoreless innings. Bradford and Baez have both allowed an earned run, but they've both thrown more than four innings. Overall, they've struck out more batters (14) than they've allowed hits (13) thus far.
And there's reason to believe they can continue that success when the season starts. Walker hasn't had an ERA over the league average in the last five seasons, and Bradford has allowed a grand total of two home runs over the last two years. Baez and Williamson have both been closers, but they'll have reduced roles in Baltimore.
No matter what their role is as individuals, Mazzone said the group could have a collective effect. He noted that all four pitchers have postseason experience, which was a rare quality on last year's staff. In the best-case scenario, he said, those pitchers would share what they've learned about October with their less experienced teammates.
"You want to cultivate a learning atmosphere and a winning tradition. We want to create that here," he said. "You've got pitchers down there that have great makeup, beyond just being effective out there on the mound.
"They're a great group to be around, and they have a great work ethic."
Last year, the Orioles had the second-worst relief ERA (5.27) in baseball, and their bullpen allowed more home runs (86) and a higher slugging percentage (.478) than any other relief staff. The one constant positive was Ray, who successfully converted saves in 33 of his 38 chances. This year, the O's want more of the same.
Ray has pitched four scoreless innings and yielded four hits this spring. He has also struck out five batters without walking any.
"He was awfully good last year, and hopefully he'll be the same this year," said Mazzone. "Hopefully, we can get to him more often, or maybe he won't have to go two innings quite as much.
"But even when we did do that last year, we made sure we weren't going to abuse him."
Mazzone, too, doesn't have to concern himself with abuse or overwork. He still has to work hard to get his point across to some of the team's younger pitchers, but he can dial it down a little bit around the more experienced relievers. And in the long run, that fact may mean more than any statistic compiled during the exhibition season.
"There's no question about it. Leo has had a much, much better spring this year," Perlozzo said. "We have some good professionals. People are not afraid to listen to him, and they go about their business in the right way. We've been trying to get the whole club that way. ... And I think it's as close this year as we've been in a long time."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.