The surprising success of the Orioles' bullpen -

Rich Dubroff

The surprising success of the Orioles’ bullpen

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

The Orioles’ bullpen enters Friday’s game against the Oakland Athletics with an ERA of 3.38. How good is that?

In 2016, the Orioles’ most recent winning and playoff-qualifying season, the bullpen’s ERA was 3.40.

That was the year Zack Britton reeled off 47 successful save conversions, and Brad Brach had a career-best 2.05 ERA. That year’s bullpen also had Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens.

This year’s bullpen has Shawn Armstrong, Paul Fry, Adam Plutko, Tanner Scott and César Valdez as its key components.

Through 18 games, the bullpen is perhaps the primary reason the team has been competitive. Oriole starters are averaging just under five innings (4.98) per start. Over the long term, that’s going to have to increase.

Fry, who had a shaky spring training (10.61 ERA in 6 1/3 innings), has been superb in the season’s first three weeks. His ERA is 1.23  — one run, six hits, three walks, 10 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings. Left-handers are just 2-for-11 (.182) against the left-hander.

Scott, the bullpen’s other left-handed short man, was dominant last year with a 1.31 ERA in 20 2/3 innings. This year, he hasn’t been quite as sharp but has a 2.57 ERA — two earned runs, five hits, four walks and nine strikeouts in 10 innings.

There was thought that Scott and Hunter Harvey would be the ninth-inning pitchers because of their overpowering stuff. Scott has yet to see the ninth inning. Harvey, who is on the 60-day injured list because of a strained left oblique muscle, is far from making his 2021 debut. Manager Brandon Hyde said that Harvey is playing catch and progressing.

Instead of Harvey and Scott, Hyde has been using the 36-year-old Valdez, who has managed to baffle hitters with his off-speed stuff. Valdez has given up one earned run in 9 1/3 innings for a 0.96 ERA. He has struck out 10 and walked only one and hasn’t allowed a home run in 23 2/3 innings with the Orioles since August 2020.


Armstrong, the Orioles’ most experienced reliever, had a 1.80 ERA last season in 15 innings, missing time because of a back injury. He began this season on the paternity list and missed the first series in Boston. He’s still searching for the  effectiveness he had last year. Armstrong has given up eight earned runs on nine hits in four innings for an 18.00 ERA.

The biggest surprise has been Plutko, who was acquired from Cleveland just before spring training ended for cash considerations. Plutko leads the relievers with 11 innings. He has given up two runs on eight hits for a 1.64 ERA. Plutko has walked three and struck out eight.

The team has benefited from an odd schedule. This week included two offdays. Last week, there were rainouts on April 12th and 14th. Although that necessitated doubleheaders on April 13th and 15th, there was an unscheduled day off in between.

The rule in which doubleheaders are reduced to seven innings helped, too. Teams are also allowed a 27th man, and the addition of Travis Lakins and Cole Sulser for the doubleheaders eased the load on the bullpen.

The Orioles’ schedule will get more difficult. Between now and June 3rd, there are only three offdays. The first of those is on May 6th after a six-day trip to Oakland and Seattle.

Lakins didn’t begin the season with the Orioles but was added last week when Rule 5 pick Mac Sceroler went on the 10-day injured list because of tendinitis in his left shoulder.

Sulser was recalled when the Orioles decided to go with four starters for the time being and No. 5 starter Dean Kremer was sent to the alternate training site at Bowie. Kremer could be back on April 28th.

Lakins and Sulser have combined for 9 1/3 scoreless innings.

The Orioles also have veteran left-hander Wade LeBlanc,  5.40 ERA in five innings, and right-hander Dillon Tate, 4.15 ERA in 4 1/3 innings. Another Rule 5 pick, Tyler Wells, has a  4.76 ERA in 5 2/3 innings.

In Kremer’s absence, the Orioles have 10 relievers. Fry, Lakins, Scott, Sulser and Tate each have options remaining, and it’s likely that there will be more shuffling as the schedule gets more difficult.

The Orioles also have left-hander Keegan Akin, who pitched out of the bullpen in his first two major league appearances in 2020, and right-hander Isaac Mattson on the 40-man roster.

Those not on the 40-man roster but at Bowie are left-hander Fernando Abad, and right-handers Thomas Eshelman, Conner Greene and Eric Hanhold.

Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB



  1. Orioles20

    April 23, 2021 at 8:18 am

    For Armstrong I think he needs to find his rhythm after coming off the paternity leave. He was pitching better before is outing the other night. I was critical of Paul Fry after is abysmal spring but he’s been excellent so far. Valdez is a good pitcher while he’s pitched good in the closers role I don’t know if he’s a closer. Scott seems as if he’s building upon last year. I know he had a bad outing against Seattle but he made some good pitches in that outing. I think the bullpen could get even better when Harvey gets back healthy. Tate also has been good.

  2. Orial

    April 23, 2021 at 8:38 am

    Excellent breakdown Rich. There is one gray area—“inherited runners” where this 5 inning starter limit has had it’s issues. But in all actuality that’s where Hyde has shined–not being afraid to use his best(Scott/Fry) earlier just to stem rallies. After this upcoming homestand let’s re-examine the bullpen status. 2-3 run HRs given up in the 7th/8th innings by the ‘pen have been a bugaboo at OPACY.

    • Rich Dubroff

      April 23, 2021 at 8:45 am

      Orioles pitchers have given up one home run in the seventh and four in the eighth. Have to look further on two and three-run homers.

  3. Hallbe62

    April 23, 2021 at 11:49 am

    Sans Armstrong, I agree with the bullpen assessment. A pleasant surprise indeed.

    I have been less than complimentary with the pen in the past.

  4. dlgruber1

    April 23, 2021 at 1:11 pm

    I just can’t say enough about Valdez. I give the O’s a lot of credit for signing him. I mean, most scouts won’t even look at anyone, especially someone his age, not throwing in the mid 90s it seems and this guy is just making hitters look foolish. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to pitch into his 40’s with the way he throws.

  5. Bumble bee

    April 23, 2021 at 3:26 pm

    Five of those top six batters for today look sweet. Go o’s

    • CalsPals

      April 23, 2021 at 3:33 pm

      As well as Galvis has been swinging the bat, surprised they’re batting him so low…go O’s…

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