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The Orioles bullpen is still elite

Britton, Brach, and Givens are a scary back end, so let’s talk about it.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Orioles are everyone’s favorite conundrum. Somehow, the Flying Manny Machados continually will their way into the playoff picture every year. They can do this by pulling off something crazy, such as breaking the one-run wins record or falling just 11 shy of the team home run record. Or they can do it with something wholly unsustainable, such as any year Chris Tillman has an ERA below four. In other words, the Orioles are a bit hard to predict. That said, I don’t think the Baltimore bullpen is getting enough credit.

Whether it’s projection systems or just casual conversation, the chatter about top-level back-end arms never seems to include the Orioles. We all hear about the two-headed monster in the Bronx, the postseason darlings in Cleveland, the top-down strength of Houston, and the refitted bullpen in Wrigleyville. But the Orioles bullpen deserves to be in this conversation with Zach Britton, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens leading the way.

Assuming he gets to pitch, Britton is one of the most impactful relievers in the game. The southpaw has been a 2+ WARP closer for the Orioles for each of the past three years. In 2015 and 2016, Britton posted a ERA, DRA, and FIP below two, thanks to a K rate above 29 percent and a walk rate below 7 percent.

Last year was Britton’s best as well. The left-hander allowed four earned runs over 67 innings, which amounts to a 0.54 ERA — the best of all time for a qualified reliever. His peripherals were just as good, as he tallied a 29.1 percent strikeout rate, a 7.1 percent walk rate, and a 1.63 DRA, which was good for second in all of baseball among pitchers with 65 or more innings. So, yea, Zach Britton is excellent at this pitching thing.

Conventional wisdom would say that it’s hard to bet against Britton and his heavy sinker that can dial up to 100 miles per hour. The projections think so, too. Britton is tabbed for a bit of regression, which is reasonable for a guy who allowed a .230 BABIP and gave up only four earned runs. Still, PECOTA expects Britton to be a 1.8-WARP player, meaning his regression would be to that of a slightly more reasonable, top-tier closer.

After acquiring him in a trade from the Padres, Brach has been an excellent setup man. Brach’s first season with the Orioles was his “worst” by a good margin. Still a quality late-inning option, Brach posted a 3.18 ERA and 3.46 DRA with 21.3 percent strikeouts and 9.8 percent walks. That resulted in 0.8 WARP over 62 13 innings.

Then the switch flipped. Brach, who added a sinker when he arrived in Baltimore, pumped up the usage of his changeup in 2015.

Brad Brach pitch usage by year
Brooks Baseball

Since increasing his changeup usage, he has been outstanding. His K rate has risen continuously, first to 27.5 percent in 2015 and then to 29.6 percent in 2016; his walk rate spiked to 11.7 percent but then settled at 8 percent. Plus, his ground ball rate jumped 8.3 percentage points from 2014 to 2015, and he held onto most of that progress in 2016. As a result, he posted a sub-3 ERA and DRA each season, with his 2016 marks nearing 2 on both accounts. As far as aggregate value goes, he racked up 2.0 and 2.4 WARP marks over his 79 innings in each respective season.

Despite being an All-Star and fifth in WARP among relievers last year, Brach isn’t getting a lot of projection love. His projections see large spikes in all three of ERA, DRA, and FIP. Even Brach’s 90th-percentile projection puts him at a 3.10 ERA and a 3.08 DRA, which would be his highest since 2014. With this nasty cambio in his back pocket, Brach seems to have a lot more upside than that.

The other high-leverage arm in Baltimore that’s deserving of praise is Givens. In his first full season, Givens played a huge role in the Orioles ‘pen, joining with Brach to form a rock-hard bridge to their stalwart closer in Britton. Givens tossed 74 23 innings, which was good for second among Oriole relievers; with his DRA at 3.01 and ERA at 3.13, it’s fair to say he earned the role.

Givens, who registered the highest K rate of the group with 30.7 percent, has two highly effective pitches with two strikes. His fastball and slider, his two primary offerings, both sit at a 20 percent whiff rate when trying to put the batter away. Together with one of the highest soft contact rates in the majors, that makes Givens a deadly late-inning weapon.

Since Givens doesn’t have a long resume like Britton or Brach, projection systems aren’t as kind. Consistency is huge in projection models, so it’s no surprise that Givens isn’t getting a ton of love with systems like PECOTA seeing him as a 4.67-ERA guy. But, after getting a selection to the USA World Baseball Classic team, Givens is getting a bit of play as one of the better young relief arms in the league. That’s some high praise for the former Perth Heat shortstop.

The Orioles haven’t had much in their rotation for years. With staffs continually headlined with guys like Jason Hammel, Tillman, and Wei-Yin Chen, they’ve continually had to win games without consistent performances from their starters. But having Britton, Brach, and Givens at the end of the pen means the Orioles can shorten games and not have to rely much on their starting pitching, which may be helpful with Seth Smith and Hyun Soo Kim roaming the outfield.

Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.