What a journey it’s been for Mychal Givens.
Drafted 54th overall in 2009, the Tampa native was viewed as a primary shortstop, though he was unable to make the cruel adjustment from high school to minor league pitching. Accruing a .247/.331/.311 slash between rookie ball and High-A Frederick, the Orioles suggested a move to the mound prior to the 2013 season, a conversion that’s seen both parties nod their respective heads in approval.
Givens debuted with the Orioles last summer, and as quickly as he was dismissed as a shortstop, he was embraced as a mid-to-late inning reliever. In his first 30.0 big league innings, the sidearm-slinging slasher amassed a 32.5 K%, 0.87 WHIP and 12.2% whiff rate—all well-above league average—en route to a 1.80 ERA and 1.73 FIP. The hard-throwing righty, in the middle of his only his third professional season as a pitcher, somehow skirted through the American League with very lows levels of angst.
In 2016, Givens has doubled his ERA to a 3.61 mark, while his walk percentage (12.1%) and HR/FB ratio (12.5) have skyrocketed. Some can be attributed with overall familiarity within the AL or maybe some tough luck on balls in play (.319 BABIP compared to .268 a year ago), but Givens’ bloating numbers are more to do with his impotence against those to his glove side.
A year ago, Givens managed to work against both sides of the plate with equal veracity, but so far this season, lefties have brought a world of pain to the Orioles maturing reliever. Righties are still struggling to pinpoint Givens’ unique arm angle (.167/.262/.290), but the corrie-fisters have plagued Givens, tuning him from a .200/.273/.282 slash to a .392/.500/.682 to this point of the year. Naturally, the question begs, how is it that Givens has reversed course versus one side of the plate at such a violent pace?
Givens more or less sets himself up to be labeled as a righty specialist due to his lack of a varying arsenal, though that isn’t meant to be a slight. A mid-to-high 90’s fastball and left-turning slider are more than well enough to stymy fellow right-handed batters. Without the trust of a dependable off-speed pitch however, Givens plays the same guessing game with righties as he does with lefties. Living strictly with a fastball that is normally flat and slider breaking back in towards the opposite batter’s box makes life inherently more difficult.
As such, Givens has to rely on a diet of perfection with the fastball in order for his slider to follow suit. That hasn’t worked.
Where Givens tends to play in with the fastball versus righties, his attempts to seize the same corner have been futile. Already he’s grooved more fastballs over the middle of the plate, and when he misses, he’s not missing down. There’s an understanding as to why he wants to control the outer-half of the plate, but as his plotting shows, there seems to be either a timidity or philosophical plan to stay away from the inner-third on left-handers.
In 2015, Givens employed somewhat the same strategy of working the hard stuff down or away as a mask for the slider. Though, Givens’ slider execution hasn’t been what it was.
A sidearmer is always going to find more tilt working to his glove side of the plate with his breaking ball, especially someone like Givens. His slider isn’t necessarily prototypical, as it moves more as a mega-cutter than a traditional slider. He’s always going to have bite down and in to lefties, but away from lefties, the slider purports more as a low-impact cutter. In simpler terms, it just kind of floats.
To Chase Headley’s credit, he put together one heck of an eight pitch at-at before sending a Givens slider over the right field fence, but again, the formula was scripted.
Missing away on the fastball with the first pitch, Givens induced back-to-back whiffs on a pair of sliders down and away. Givens followed with a third consecutive slider down, and Headley took. Three consecutive fastballs were fouled away before Caleb Joseph went back to the well one too many times.
Headley didn’t look comfortable with Givens’ fastball, and by going back to the slider, he’s gifted the fortune of a sped-up bat. Joseph’s intentions made sense, as Headley had swung and miss on the previous two sliders in such a location, but where’s the creativity?
There’s no attempt to move Headley off the plate with a fastball, seduce a swing with a slider breaking towards his back leg, or even a show-me changeup. Headley was able to cut the strike zone in half, and the results showed it. Givens can’t mirage the fastball and slider to lefties the way he does to right-handers, because his repertoire doesn’t allow him to. The basic fundamentals of pitching, you know, working the four quadrants of the strike zone, changing eye levels, that kind of the thing, may very well be the kind of injection Givens needs to grow beyond the specialist reputation he’s reverted down to. Or, who knows, maybe a third pitch...
And though we’d like to believe that the eventual return of Darren O’Day will mend the open wound the heroic Orioles bullpen has forced to become, there are PROBABLY still going to be plenty of innings to be eaten, especially now that Dylan Bundy appears to be lined up to throw four innings every fifth day. In a perfect world, Givens situates as a dominant one or two out back-end guy, but the Orioles don’t believe in happiness. Givens is going to be asked to get both lefties and righties out, and the O’s are going to need him to get both lefties and righties out.
Specialist is basically a label for guys who serve no other purpose than to pitch to one or two batters, but Givens isn’t a lob-tosser like Javier Lopez or Louis Coleman. We’re talking about a plus arm capable of much more than he’s shown so far this year, and while the lefty splits skew the numbers, he’s been pretty good for a guy remembered how to pitch only three years ago.
It’s hard to imagine there’s still not a little bit of room for improvement.