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Ballad of the human heart attacks: a history of bad Orioles relief pitching

By Ryan Mavity | May 18, 2011

What is it about the Baltimore Orioles that seems to attract bad relief pitching the way the Kardashian family is able to attract attention?

For what seems like forever, we O’s fans have been treated to a seemingly endless parade of guys I like to call human heart attacks, because you feel like you’re going to have one as you watch them put runners on and blow leads.

The latest in this group is Kevin Gregg, the erstwhile closer brought in from Toronto this offseason. Gregg had a well-established reputation as a human heart attack before he even got to Baltimore, so his three blown saves this year (second in MLB) is no surprise. The real question is, why did the O’s go out and get another guy like this?

The obvious answer is that Gregg has accumulated a lot of saves before, the O’s needed a closer and Gregg was in their price range.

But if anything, Gregg is an indictment of how the save statistic is misleading. Sure, he’s got seven saves in 10 chances, but with an earned run average around 4.00 – terrible for a closer, who should be around, if not under 2.00 – and an unsightly WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.63, which is not good for any pitcher, starter or reliever, the only thing you can say Gregg is truly good at right now is putting runners on base.

All baseball teams generally have the token “reliever who drives everyone nuts,” but the Orioles have managed to stock their bullpens with them over the years. It’s no wonder the O’s haven’t had a winning season in 13 years if the back end of your pitching staff is constantly blowing games.

The most recent meltdown was earlier in the week in the Chamber of Horrors known as Fenway Park. Leading 6-0, Buck Showalter turned things over to the bullpen only to see them blow not only that lead, but a 7-5 lead as well. After Boston cut the lead to 7-6, you didn’t need a Zoltar machine to see what the ninth inning would hold: Gregg coming in to put two runners on and give up a game-winning double to Adrian Gonzalez.

Already this season, the Orioles bullpen has given up 24 home runs, only two fewer than the starters have. Simply put, that’s disgraceful and a guaranteed recipe for last place.

 

The roots of Oriole bullpen craziness go back to 1978-79, when the “Orioles Magic” Birds employed a reliever named Don Stanhouse, who was nicknamed “Full Pack” by Earl Weaver after the amount of cigarettes Earl would smoke when Stanhouse was on the mound.

While he was ahead of my time, most accounts of Stanhouse are full of stories of how he would constantly get himself in jams and somehow get out of it.

It wouldn’t be until 1995 that the Orioles would start their recent string of heart attack inducing relievers. After arm injuries killed the career of closer Gregg Olson – still the possessor of what I think was the best curve ball I’ve ever seen, it looked like a boomerang – the Orioles signed a free agent named Doug Jones.

Jones had been a very successful closer in his days with the Cleveland Indians in the late 1980s, but unlike Olson, a power closer without much subtlety, Jones was a changeup guy who liked to keep hitters off-balance.

Needless to say, Jones sucked with the Orioles, not winning a game and finishing the year with an ERA over 5.00. To this day, Jones is the only athlete my dad has actively disliked. I remember being at a game with him and you could see his heart sink when Jones came in.

Thankfully, Jones only lasted one year; we weren’t as lucky with Mike Timlin. Like Jones, Timlin had been successful with other teams, in this case Toronto. Of course, once he got to the Orioles, Timlin got lit up like Katy Perry’s chest in that “Firework” video.

The everlasting memory of Timlin’s time in Baltimore is when a seemingly drunk John Buren, the WJZ-TV sports guy famous for his Hawaiian shirts, got fed up with another of Timlin’s late game meltdowns and christened him “The Arsonist.”

Naturally after the Orioles dumped his sorry carcass, Timlin found his way to the Red Sox, where he all the sudden learned how to pitch again and became a valuable member of the Chowderheads’ 2004 World Series championship team. Thanks a lot Mr. Arsonist.

Following Timlin, the Orioles next turned to a hard-throwing Venezuelan named Jorge Julio. A two-pitch pitcher, Julio threw a fastball that topped out in the high 90s along with a biting slider. He racked up plenty of saves, including 36 in 2003, but his ERAs were frequently over 4.00.

The thing about Julio was you could always tell when he was going to blow a game just by watching his first few pitches. If he started the first hitter off with a 98 mph fastball three feet over the batter’s head, or a slider that bounced five feet in front of home plate, you knew you were in for a wild ride because once he fell behind in the count, Julio would start throwing meat down the middle to get a strike. That meat would usually get hit. Hard.

Julio, like his predecessor Armando Benitez, also had a maddening habit that hard throwers sometimes have. He’d blow two fastballs right by a guy, but instead of throwing the heat up there again, he’d inevitably throw a slider, which would of course hang and get hit. Because it’s almost too easy to just blow it by a guy. You gotta try to fool him too.

After the reliable BJ Ryan bolted for Toronto, the Orioles needed another closer and they found one of their most memorable human heart attacks in George Sherrill.

Nicknamed “Flat Breezy” for his flat-brimmed cap and cool demeanor, there was a lot to like about Sherrill. He had cool entrance music – “Blood, Milk and Sky” by White Zombie – and he produced, racking up 50 saves in less than two seasons.

But man, could he drive a fan to chain smoke like characters in a 1990s indie film.

Sherrill had a style where he liked to nibble corners, never giving in to a hitter. This usually led to runners getting on base, which I almost think is how Georgie wanted it because he seemed more focused in a tight spot.

My favorite Sherrill jam was the one he got into at Chicago’s Wrigley Field during an interleague series with the Cubs in 2008. With the O’s up 7-5 in the ninth, Georgie had loaded the bases with nobody out and somehow got out of it by striking out three straight Cubs.

And that’s only the closers. I haven’t even gotten into such notable bullpen washouts as Mike Fetters, Mike DeJean (what Doug Jones was to my dad, DeJean was for me), Danys Baez, Mark Hendrickson, LaTroy Hawkins, Steve Kline, Jason Grimsley, Mike Trombley and of course, Benitez, the hard-throwing right-hander who had a penchant for giving up big home runs (the Jeffrey Maier home run to Derek Jeter in 1996 and the Tony “Bleepin’” Fernandez ALCS-winning homer in 1997).

Rattling off all these failed bullpen specialists the Orioles have had over the years can quickly descend into a game me and my buddy Greg used to have where we would rattle of the names crappy baseball players.

 

So what is the moral of this long diatribe?

I think it’s this:

Dear Orioles, if a relief pitcher comes on the market that may have had past success but also has a recent history of high WHIPs and ERAs that make him well within your price range, for the love of God don’t sign him!

 

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