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2014 ALDS: Orioles' bullpen a big advantage over Tigers

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It took a little while, but the Baltimore Orioles now have a lockdown bullpen that the Tigers will not want to face in the ALDS.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

The Baltimore Orioles didn't start the season with an excellent bullpen. They traded Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics last offseason, which seemed like a risky move at the time. Johnson was coming off back-to-back 50 save seasons with sub-3.00 ERAs. In his place was Tommy Hunter, a failed starter who got off to a slow start as the team's new closer. Hunter blew three of his first 14 save opportunities, the last of which came against these Tigers on May 13th. He allowed a 6.60 ERA and 5.07 FIP in 15 innings during that stretch.

Hunter's blown save against the Tigers was the last straw for Buck Showalter. The Orioles' skipper turned to left-hander Zach Britton in the closer role, and the 26 year old Californian rewarded his manager with a blown save less than two weeks later. Showalter stuck with Britton, though, and for good reason. After the blown save, Britton's ERA was a microscopic 0.94. He lowered it to 0.72 over the next few weeks before allowing another run. His ERA hovered just above 2.00 for a period of two weeks in August, but he was able to bring it back down to 1.65 by season's end.

Britton isn't all by himself either. The Orioles' bullpen had a 3.10 ERA this season, the third-lowest mark in the American League. Their post-All-Star break ERA of 2.66 led the league. Britton, Darren O'Day, and trade acquisition Andrew Miller all had sub-2.00 ERAs for the O's, making their back end as formidable as the hydra that the Kansas City Royals were able to run out in late innings all season long. Tommy Hunter rebounded to have a sub-3.00 ERA, while Brian Matusz, Brad Brach, and Ryan Webb also provided some solid innings. Oh, and they might be adding Kevin Gausman to the mix, depending on how the rotation shakes out.

Closer: LHP Zach Britton (37/41 saves, 1.65 ERA)
IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP xFIP SIERA fWAR
76.1 7.31 2.71 0.47 0.90 3.13 2.82 2.14 1.1

As mentioned above, Britton had an excellent season as the Orioles' closer. He saved 37 games (fourth in the AL) in 41 opportunities, including a stretch of 18 consecutive conversions from July 18th to September 7th. A former starter, Britton dropped his changeup and slider while upping his velocity in a relief role. His average fastball velocity rose from 92.5 miles per hour in 2013 to 96.2 in 2014, and he threw his two-seamer over 90 percent of the time. The velocity and movement resulted in a ton of ground balls, even by Britton's previous lofty standards. As a full-time starter in 2011, Britton had a 52.8 percent ground ball rate. This season, Britton's ground ball rate is an absurd 75.3 percent. Combine that with his minuscule .130 BABIP on grounders and you see why he has been so dominant in 2014.

Setup: Darren O'Day (5-2, 1.70 ERA) and Andrew Miller (5-5, 2.02 ERA)
Pitcher IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP xFIP SIERA fWAR
Darren O'Day 68.2 9.57 2.49 0.79 0.89 3.32 3.32 2.66 0.9
Andrew Miller 62.1 14.87 2.45 0.43 0.80 1.51 1.58 1.21 2.3

The road to Britton isn't easy either. Sidearmer Darren O'Day has been hell on right-handed hitters throughout his career, and 2014 was no different. Right-handed batters hit just .164/.250/.247 with two home runs off O'Day in 2014, a slight improvement over his .548 OPS allowed. Lefties didn't fare much better this year, hitting .189/.264/.368. O'Day is purely a fastball-slider pitcher, but his funky delivery and excellent command are what help him get outs.

Andrew Miller is the polar opposite of Darren O'Day. A big left-hander who was highly touted out of the University of North Carolina, Miller has found his home as a late innings flamethrower. His fastball averaged 94.9 miles per hour, while his devastating slider generated a swing and a miss 25 percent of the time it was thrown. This fastball-slider combo is the reason why Miller struck out 42.6 percent of the batters he faced. While he sounds like a prototypical LOOGY, Miller held right-handed batters to a .446 OPS this season. Buck Showalter used him liberally down the stretch, throwing him into the fire in the seventh and eight innings depending on the situation.

Middle relief
Pitcher IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP xFIP SIERA fWAR
Tommy Hunter 60.2 6.68 1.78 0.59 1.10 3.15 3.23 3.04 0.8
Brad Brach 62.1 7.80 3.61 0.87 1.17 3.90 4.12 3.74 0.2
Brian Matusz 51.2 9.23 2.96 1.22 1.32 4.00 4.06 3.27 0.3
T.J. McFarland 58.2 5.22 1.99 0.31 1.41 3.29 3.62 3.19 0.6

The Orioles are famous for their liberal use of the farm system in order to keep their bullpen fresh throughout a 162 game season, and 2014 was no different. They used 14 different relief pitchers in 2014 -- 15 if you count Ubaldo Jimenez's late season foray into the pen -- and a number of them could be considered for the playoff roster. Despite his slow start, Hunter is as close to a lock as anyone not already listed above. He bounced back from his blown save against the Tigers to post a 1.77 ERA and 4.43 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last four months of the season. Hunter was a jack of all trades for Showalter, coming in at any time of the game and often pitching an inning or more. He will be the go-to right-handed power arm in this series, even if his strikeout rate isn't too pretty.

Brad Brach was a shrewd pick-up turned gold by Orioles GM Dan Duquette. Brach posted a 3.19 ERA in 31 innings for the San Diego Padres, then replicated the feat with a 3.18 ERA in 62 1/3 innings this season. He walked a fair number of hitters, but his three-pitch combination (fastball, slider, splitter) helped him limit opposing batters to an 18.8 percent line drive rate and .250 BABIP this season. He struggled in September, allowing a 5.91 ERA and 8:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Brian Matusz was a dominant LOOGY in 2013, holding left-handed hitters to a .168 batting average and .502 OPS. This season, those figures climbed to .223 and .626, respectively. That's still pretty good, and better than what fellow left-hander T.J. McFarland was able to accomplish. McFarland was on fire down the stretch, holding opponents to a 2.04 ERA after August 1st. That said, it's tough to see Showalter keeping four lefties in the pen against such a righty-heavy lineup. Someone like Ryan Webb could be inserted into the fold instead.