Brandon Hyde’s Orioles managerial career is all of nine games old. It’s way too early to draw sweeping conclusions about his managerial style.
With that said…let’s do exactly that.
Hyde has had his share of triumphs and missteps, like any manager. In the early going, though, Hyde’s style has been a contrast to the man he replaced, Buck Showalter, who managed the team from 2010-18.
Here’s a look at a few things Hyde has done differently:
A more conservative approach with starting pitchers
Through the first nine games, one Hyde trend has become clear: He’d rather pull a starting pitcher too early than too late.
Hyde, for the most part, has avoided letting his pitchers face the meat of the opposing lineup a third time around. And there’s statistical evidence to justify his decision, because pitchers normally become less effective the more often they face opposing hitters. Last year, major league starting pitchers held batters to a .239 average and .700 OPS the first time they faced them in a game, and a .251/.731 mark the second time through. Once the lineup turned over a third time, though, the advantage shifted to the hitters. Batters hit .265 with a .784 OPS on their third look at a pitcher.
The 2018 Orioles fell victim to that pitfall. Not that their league-worst starting staff was particularly effective at any turn through the lineup, but they were exponentially worse the third time through. Orioles starters allowed a .264 average and .783 OPS the first time through the lineup, .284/.851 the second time and a brutal .320/.974 a third time.
In many cases, Showalter gave his pitchers the benefit of the doubt in the critical middle innings, trying to coax a few extra outs from his starter to avoid overtaxing the bullpen. Sometimes, the gamble worked. Often, it didn’t, causing games to get out of hand because a tired starter couldn’t retire batters the third time through the order.
Hyde, so far, has been quicker with the trigger finger. No Orioles starter has pitched three full turns through the order, with Andrew Cashner’s 24 batters faced in Toronto on April 2 the team high. With relievers such as Jimmy Yacabonis and John Means capable of covering multiple innings, Hyde is more willing to turn to his bullpen early, before the starters reach the danger zone.
Hyde’s early hooks, though, have brought mixed results. At Yankee Stadium March 31, Hyde pulled Dylan Bundy with a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning, just as the Yankees’ lineup was coming up for a third time (Bundy’s pitch count of 93 made that a somewhat easy decision). The Yankees rallied, but the fresh arm of Means was effective as he worked 3 1/3 innings of one-run ball en route to a 7-5 Orioles win.
But in the Orioles’ home opener last Thursday, Hyde may have pushed the bullpen button too soon. Starter Alex Cobb had pitched well, allowing two runs in 5 2/3 innings, and carried a 4-2 lead in the sixth. He had faced four Yankees hitters for a third time when Hyde removed him from the game. Mike Wright imploded in relief, giving up four hits and three runs, and the Yankees took a lead they never relinquished. Cobb’s pitch count of 87 played a role in Hyde’s decision to take him out, but had he stayed in for another batter or two, perhaps the Yankees’ rally would have been stifled, or at least delayed.
Hyde also removed David Hess in the seventh inning April 1 while he was pitching a no-hitter. Hess had faced only two Blue Jays hitters more than twice that game. Again, pitch count may have been a bigger factor in Hess’ removal than the third-time-through-the-lineup curse; Hess had thrown 124 pitches in the first five days of the season. Still, the decision was second-guessed, especially when the Orioles’ bullpen nearly blew a 6-0 lead and barely escaped with a 6-5 victory.
It’s impossible to say how any of these games would have turned out if Hyde had left his starters in a little longer. Wins could have turned into losses, or losses into wins, or maybe nothing would have changed at all.
A bullpen-by-committee strategy
Coming into the season, one of the few certainties in the Orioles’ bullpen — or so we thought — was that veteran right-hander Mychal Givens would reprise his late-2018 role as the club’s closer.
Yeah, uh…about that.
In the Orioles’ four wins this season, four different relievers registered a save. And none of them was Givens.
Wright and Richard Bleier each picked up his first career save. Paul Fry registered his third, and Miguel Castro his fifth (but his first since April 23, 2015 with Toronto).
Givens, meanwhile, was used in more of a fireman role. In each of his first three outings, he was brought in in the eighth inning rather than the ninth. Twice he pitched into the ninth but was replaced mid-inning.
As Rich Dubroff wrote, Hyde’s bullpen use has been unpredictable. To this point, no reliever seems to have one particular role or one specific inning to cover. Wright has entered one game in the fifth, two in the sixth, one in the eighth and one in the ninth. Fry has pitched the seventh, eighth and ninth. Bleier has appeared as early as the fifth and as late as the ninth; Castro, the sixth and the ninth.
Again, Hyde’s approach is a departure from that of Showalter, who preferred to slot his relievers into strict, clearly defined roles. He subscribed to the idea that relievers tend to perform best when they know which innings they’ll be pitching. During the Orioles’ successful stretch from 2012-16, the Orioles had one pitcher each year with at least 36 saves, and never more than three pitchers with multiple saves. That structured bullpen approach was a success, for the most part. The Orioles’ bullpen finished third or better in the AL in ERA for four of those five years, including a league-best 3.40 mark in 2016.
Showalter’s adherence to strict bullpen roles, though, was also the source of his biggest managerial blunder. In the 2016 Wild Card game in Toronto, Showalter refused to bring in closer Zach Britton at any point of the 11-inning affair, waiting for a save situation that never came. The rest is history, as Ubaldo Jimenez and the Orioles lost a walkoff that ended their season while their best pitcher never made an appearance.
Hyde, so far, has promoted bullpen flexibility, not wanting to paint himself into a corner by assigning rigid roles. After all, the goal of any pitcher should be to get batters out, no matter the inning or situation in which they’re appearing. Still, some relievers don’t respond well to not knowing when they’re going to pitch. It’ll be interesting to see if Hyde continues his mix-and-match bullpen style all season, or if he’ll shift to a more organized structure once he has a better idea of his relievers’ skills.
No allegiance to the old guard
Hyde, who was hired as manager December 14, has been with the Orioles less than four months. And while that means he’s still familiarizing himself with the organization, it also means he doesn’t feel undue attachment to players from the Showalter era. He can examine them with fresh eyes and a new perspective, playing them — or not playing them — as he sees fit.
The most significant holdover from the previous administration, of course, is embattled first baseman Chris Davis. Davis enjoyed his most productive seasons under Showalter, earning the manager’s respect and loyalty. But that loyalty may have torpedoed Showalter, Davis and the Orioles in 2018.
As Davis spiraled toward one of the worst individual seasons in MLB history last year, Showalter steadfastly stuck with the longtime Oriole throughout his struggles. Davis racked up 522 plate appearances, third most on the team. Yes, Davis was benched for a couple of stretches — including a week in June, and the final eight games of the year — but when he was in the lineup, he was usually parked in the middle of it. The majority of Davis’ starts (73 out of 127) came as the No. 5 hitter. As late in the season as August 27, when Davis was hitting .167 with a .557 OPS, Showalter penciled him into the cleanup spot.
Further, not once during the 2018 season was Davis lifted for a pinch-hitter, even against tough lefties late in games. Perhaps Showalter didn’t want to embarrass the veteran by so publicly removing him from a game, or maybe he wasn’t enthused with the club’s bench options. The skipper, though, wasn’t doing his team any favors by continuing to treat Davis as an everyday, middle-of-the-order slugger, when his performance proved he was anything but.
Under Hyde, Davis has been hidden further down in the lineup, when he’s in it at all. Hyde benched Davis in the second game of the season against tough Yankee lefty James Paxton, then again Saturday versus southpaw J.A. Happ. When Davis has started, he’s batted seventh in the lineup each time. Last year, Davis made only 18 starts as low as the No. 7 slot. And Hyde hasn’t hesitated to pinch-hit for Davis late in games against lefties, doing so in both the Orioles’ season opener and their home opener.
The change in the batting order hasn’t helped Davis get on track. He’s hitless in his first 27 plate appearances, striking out 13 times. Hyde, so far, has publicly supported Davis, as a manager should do. But it’s clear he’s not giving the first baseman as prominent a role as Showalter did, instead looking for ways to alleviate the pressure on Davis as he tries to turn things around. And if he doesn’t turn things around soon, Hyde likely won’t hesitate to cut his playing time.