Last week during the Orioles/Red Sox series, I visited Sons of Sam Horn to see what Red Sox fans were saying about the series. If you've never ventured into that dark corner of the internet, do yourself a favor and stay away. Nothing good ever comes of it. Reading that board usually leaves me angry and annoyed, but I am a sucker for punishment and can't help but to take a peak when the O's and Red Sox are playing.
Last week, SOSH posters were spouting off their usual nonsense as the O's positioned themselves to go up 2 games to 0 in the 3-game series. One post in particular caught my eye. This post argued that the O's had been lucky this season and pointed to the team's 7-2 record in extra inning games as "proof" of this luck. This argument has a completely flawed premise, but to be fair, I had read similar remarks about the Orioles this year from analysts, fans of other teams, and even from some O's fans. I started writing a blog to dispute the theory that the 2012 Orioles' success in extra-inning games is a function of luck and therefore, unsustainable. I never got the chance to finish the post, which ended up being a good thing as the O's played two more extra-inning games this weekend and drove their record to 9-2 in games extending more than nine frames. Now seems as appropriate time as ever to address the topic of luck and extra-inning success.
The reason I say that the entire premise is flawed is because I fail to see how extra-inning wins are somehow more reliant on luck than regulation wins. They only factor that separates the 10th inning from the 8th inning is that if a team is ahead at the end of the 10th, the game is over. That's it. Even that isn't really that big of a difference, as the 9th inning contains the same implications and I don't see anyone arguing that games that are won in the 9th are a function of "luck". In other words, MLB isn't the NFL. In the NFL, there is a certain, undeniable luck component at play in overtime games. There is a coin flip (the model for any pure luck proposition), the team that wins the flip gets possession first, and if they score a touchdown, the game is over without the opponent even getting a chance to respond. Those are real sudden death games with a huge luck component, a far cry from what goes down in extra fames in baseball. I can't come up with any fundamental rule difference that makes the 11th or 12th inning different from the 7th or 8th; at least not one that has to do with "luck".
Call it a hunch, but I get the impression that one reason some people assume that luck must be involved is because of the generally shaky nature of Major League bullpens. The longer a game goes, the deeper both teams are forced to go into their bullpens. The "worst" members of a Major League roster are the last couple of bench players (backup catch usually included) and the last 2, 3, or even 4 members of the bullpen. The longer a game goes, the more teams are forced to rely on their less reliable pitchers to keep their team in the game. Some people interrupt this a function of luck - two "bad" relievers are pitching and it is completely random, a coin flip, on which one of these weaker pitches is going to have the better day. Of course, that doesn't make a ton of sense. Two equally poor relievers facing each other is not fundamentally any different than two equally good starters facing each other in terms of luck being a major factor. I fail to see how there is luck involved there.
That viewpoint also operates under the assumption that all bullpens are created equal. That is definitely not true. However, it does get us to the true difference maker in extra-inning games. It isn't luck. The difference maker is bullpen strength and depth,
The 2012 Orioles bullpen currently stacks up like this against the rest of MLB bullpens:
ERA - 2.37 (1st)
BAA - .219 (4th)
WHIP - 1.09 (2nd)
K/BB - 2.83 (5th)
P/PA - 3.88 (10th)
By most metrics, the Orioles have one of the better bullpens in baseball. In extra-innings, where games essentially come down to a battle of bullpens, it is therefore no surprise that the Orioles are faring so well in those situations. It should also be noted that the Orioles are getting quite a bit of use out of their pen relative to other teams. O's relievers have thrown 209 innings through Sunday, compared to the MLB average of 179. Some of this as to do with O's starters not going as deep into games as other team's starters, thus necessitating the use of relievers earlier in games. However, any impact here appears to be minimal. O's starters have pitched 350 innings thus far compared to the MLB average of 357. A far larger contributing factor is that the O's have played 31 additional innings (10th and later), making up a significant portion of the bullpen's IP relative to the League average.
I point out the innings pitched to stress that the Orioles have a good bullpen not because their starters are going very deep into games all the time and thereby allowing the manager to use his best 3 or 4 relievers on a regular basis. Teams that are able to do that will have good looking bullpen statistics, but might not fare as well in extra-inning games when the team is forced to delve deeper into their pen. The O's have gone deep into their bullpen throughout the season and are still getting good results. This is a sign that the bullpen is good and deep, a necessity in having continual success in extra-inning games.
What further proof that the O's bullpen is very good? Consider this. After his two scoreless innings yesterday, Troy Patton lowered his ERA to a very respectable 3.77 ERA. A 3.77 ERA is a solid ERA for any pitcher. It also happens to be the HIGHEST ERA of the seven pitchers currently making up the team's bullpen. Of the 10 Orioles relievers who have thrown more than 2 innings in relief this season, Patton's 3.77 mark is still the highest amongst the group. The Orioles have four relievers currently in their bullpen (Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Darren O'Day, and Luis Ayala) have ERA's below 2.00 with Matt Lindstrom pitching to a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings before landing on the disabled list. The Orioles bullpen is very good from top to bottom.
The Orioles very good bullpen is the major reason that the Orioles have been so good in extra-inning games this season. It isn't luck. It is the fact that the O's relievers, one through seven, have been better than the competition all season long. The Phillies have the 5th worst bullpen ERA in baseball and not surprisingly, they are 2 for 8 in extra-inning games in 2012 after this weekend. There is certainly a correlation there between bullpen strength and winning extra-inning games. Extra-inning games come down to a battle of the bullpens and few bullpens in baseball, if any, have been better than the O's pen. Those 9 extra-inning wins in a row aren't a fluke - they are a function of a strong and deep relief corps.
Will the Orioles bullpen continue to perform this well throughout the entire season? That remains to be seen. Someone could certainly argue that the bullpen performance will regress. and with it, the O's will lose a few more games late. I am not entirely convinced it will, but an argument could be made to that end. That doesn't alter the fact that the O's bullpen has been legitimately good thus far and that's why the team has been good in extra-inning games. Luck has little to do with the results so far.
On The MLB Network Sunday evening, Dan Plesac referred to the "magical pixie dust" that the Orioles have going on right now in being able to win these games late. Pixie Dust has nothing to do with it. A major strength of the 2012 Orioles is their bullpen. As long as the bullpen continues to be a strength, the Orioles will continue to win extra-inning games. No luck or magic needed.