Buck Showalter will make his way around the field during batting practice before games, and while he'll talk to a lot of players along the way, his primary mission, he says, is to get a read on how his relievers are feeling, how their arms are feeling. He spends more time on bullpen management, he believes, than on any other element of his job.
Showalter has learned so much in these conversations through the years, pieces of information that he holds on to as managerial keepsakes. Like when Steve Farr and Steve Howe explained to him how difficult it is for a reliever to generate adrenaline by the third time he gets up in the bullpen during the game, and the toll it takes on a reliever to throw a lot of pitches warming up repeatedly.
The Baltimore Orioles are in contention in late September for the first time in 15 years, and a primary reason is how Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair have run their bullpen through a season of extraordinary stress. If Showalter wins American League Manager of the Year, this should be why.
Because of injury and performance, the Orioles' rotation has been in a state of flux the entire season. This is not the Baltimore of Palmer, Cuellar, McNally and Dobson: Only one pitcher has made more than 20 starts this season.
As a result, the Orioles' bullpen has been asked to carry an enormous burden. Only three teams have generated more relief innings than Baltimore -- Colorado, which skewed its bullpen numbers when it went to a four-man rotation; and the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals, teams that have had horrific seasons from their respective rotations.
Yet the Orioles' bullpen has been incredibly effective, partly because Showalter and Adair have been remarkably efficient in getting regular rest for their relievers in spite of the heavy overall use. Baltimore, for example, had used its relievers on back-to-back days among the fewest times in the American League this year going into this weekend's series.
The most situations using relievers on consecutive days, according to the research of Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information:
1. Tampa Bay Rays, 115
2. Yankees, 109
3. Royals, 102
4. Chicago White Sox, 101
5. Tigers, 96
6. Cleveland Indians, 87
7. Boston Red Sox, 84
7. Seattle Mariners, 84
9. Los Angeles Angels, 83
10. Orioles, 82
11. Rangers, 81
12. Twins, 78
13. Oakland Athletics, 73
14. Toronto Blue Jays, 72
Adair and Showalter monitor the number of times relievers get up in the bullpen and how many pitches they throw in that time. Showalter tries not to use a reliever the day after he's warmed up twice in the bullpen in the same game.
Showalter also works to minimize the number of times he gets a reliever up in the bullpen, doing so only in specific situations in which he envisions using the reliever -- rather than simply creating some comfort for himself by maximizing his options and getting two relievers up constantly.
Showalter says he learned about running a bullpen from talking with players about what worked best for them, about how they felt they had the best chance to be effective.
"Like Steve Farr and Steve Howe told me -- when the bullpen phone rings, there's an adrenaline flow," he recalled. "If you don't go into the game after warming up the first time, you can probably get that adrenaline back one more time. But you can't a third time."
Showalter liked to watch how Tony La Russa used his bullpen, in minimizing the number of times a pitcher would throw in the bullpen during the course of a game and a season.
Jim Johnson, the Orioles reliever who is approaching 50 saves this season, said over the phone the other day, "Every bullet matters. You only get so many in your career, and only so many in your season.
"He'll talk to guys during batting practice, and he'll get a feel for how ready they are. And he'll do that without asking them a direct question" about whether they can take the ball that day.
Managers in the game today routinely ask two relievers to get up at a time without having a definite sense of how and when they'll be employed, and there have been cases around baseball this year of relievers being asked to warm up during a single game a half-dozen times.
If you ever want to get a true sense of how a manager controls his own anxiety level, watch the way he uses his bullpen.
It's pretty clear that Showalter and Adair have been extremely disciplined in how and when they have used their relievers, and it has translated directly into performance in the Baltimore bullpen.
From ESPN Stats & Info: How the Orioles' bullpen has pitched this season by number of days between appearances.
0 days: 82 appearances, 2.10 ERA, .224 opp. BA
1 day: 117 appearances, 2.56 ERA, .235 opp. BA
2 days: 106 appearances, 2.34 ERA, .210 opp. BA
For the sake of comparison, how those Baltimore bullpen numbers compare to the MLB average:
0 days: 3.54 ERA, .243 opp. BA
1 day: 3.78 ERA, .249 opp. BA
2 days: 3.43 ERA, .237 opp. BA
"You've got to put yourself in their shoes," Showalter said of his relievers, "and think about what puts them in the best position to succeed."
The Orioles' bullpen won in extra innings again on Saturday. From Elias Sports Bureau:
A) The Orioles have won 16 straight extra-inning games, the second-longest single-season streak in MLB history behind the 1949 Indians (17 straight).
B) The Orioles' 16 wins in extra innings are the most for a team in a single season since the Braves won 17 in 1999.
C) The Orioles have 11 road extra-inning wins, tied with the 1999 Braves for the most in a single season since 1901.
From Elias: The Orioles have played four extra-innings games at Fenway Park this season, and they've won them all. They are the seventh team in major league history to record four extra-innings road wins against one team in a single season and the first since the 1975 Red Sox had four such wins at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The other clubs with four extra-innings road wins in one year against a particular opponent were the 1920 Pirates (at St. Louis), 1921 St. Louis Browns (at Detroit), 1955 Cubs (at St. Louis), 1964 Kansas City Athletics (at Minnesota) and 1969 Twins (at Oakland).
• Arte Moreno says flatly that Mike Scioscia will be back as manager next season.
• The Cincinnati Reds are playing with a whole lot of confidence as they prepare for the postseason, and Mat Latos is throwing well. How he beat the Dodgers on Saturday, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
A) Latos threw 53 of his 67 fastballs (79 percent) for strikes, his highest percentage in his career.
B) Latos pounded the zone with his fastball. He threw 47 of his 67 fastballs (70 percent) in the strike zone. Of the 20 that were out of the zone, 15 were within five inches of the edge of the zone.
C) Latos' fastballs averaged 93.5 mph, his highest in his past 10 starts.
D) Six of Latos' seven strikeouts came on his breaking balls (two curveballs, four sliders). It's just the third time this season Latos had at least two strikeouts on each of those pitches.
By The Numbers
From ESPN Stats & Info
1 2/3: IP by Roy Halladay on Saturday (second-shortest outing of career)
500: Career doubles by Albert Pujols (most by a player in his first 12 seasons).
From Elias: Gio Gonzalez (20-8) is the sixth pitcher in National League history to win 20 games in his first season in the NL after pitching in the American League. The others:
George Suggs: 1910 Reds
Carl Mays: 1924 Reds
Al Downing: 1971 Dodgers
Danny Jackson: 1988 Reds
Roy Halladay: 2010 Phillies
And today will be better than yesterday.