Do you remember where you were the first time you saw Richard Bleier in an Orioles uniform? I ‘memba.
You know, it was that stupid night in early May that Chris Sale, ahem, ACCIDENTALLY threw a fastball behind Manny Machado in an attempt to settle a score that had no business being relit. Yeah, that night was dumb.
To make it even dumber, Kevin Gausman was tossed for poking Xander Bogaerts with a slider in the 2nd inning that clearly slipped out of hand. Forced to the bullpen, Buck Showalter called upon Bleier in a very bleak scenario. Allowing only one run in four innings in his Oriole debut, Bleier’s initial appearance was a precursor for what made him such a surprisingly important piece of the bullpen for practically all of the 2017 season.
Why was Bleier able to reach 63.1 innings in his first full major league season? Against expectations, he managed to get outs without giving up runs.
There’s nothing particularly awe-inspiring in terms of his stuff and style, and Bleier’s numbers were pretty reassuring of the notion. Among qualified relievers, the 30-year-old had the worst strikeout rate in all of baseball at 9.8 percent. Too, Bleier was among the cellar-dwellers in whiff rate (9.1 percent), ensuring he had the fourth-highest contact rate (83.6 percent) in the company of his fellow relievers. But it didn’t matter. He just got outs.
Despite only accumulating a 0.2 WAR and a 4.48 DRA, Bleier still managed a 1.99 ERA in extended action. His ability to throw multiple innings was not only a needed commodity, but probably masked even further short-goings on behalf of the Orioles starting staff. His presence alone probably kept Brad Brach and Mychal Givens from taking on an even more severe workload, and he did so with effectiveness.
You can look at Bleier’s peripherals and wonder how any of this is possible. A 4.37 FIP is an extreme outlier from his ERA, while his BABIP finished at a rather low .259. His four-seam fastball hit a maximum velocity of 91.9 MPH in an era where the median fastball is, uh, higher than that. In today’s world, we can look at every number that should matter and come to the conclusion that Bleier’s 2017 was in some ways a miracle.
But Bleier is playing in the wrong time. He’s a throwback.
The Ray Miller school of pitching is credentialed by the mantra of throwing strikes and pitching fast, and that’s exactly what Bleier does. Even as the Orioles have flunked out of such a place of learning since forever, Bleier showed that it can, at times, still work.
Regardless of increasing contact numbers, Bleier didn’t really get hit all that hard, especially as his call to the mound became more frequent. He maintained such a massive deficit in between what was expected and what actually happened by forcing the baseball on the ground.
Owning the second-best reliever tally in all of baseball, Bleier’s 68.8 percent ground ball rate was the effect of him diversifying his fastball arsenal.
Bleier turned his slider into more of a loopy cutter, and it’s a pitch that he used to jam righties and work away from lefties. Without velo on his side, Bleier had to rely on movement and command to miss and break barrels, evidence of his sky-high ground ball numbers. When he wasn’t cutting the fastball, he was using his natural two-seam sink for the same purpose.
While Bleier’s sink doesn’t drops jaws like that of Zach Britton, it’s good enough. This is a well executed pitch against a guy like Willson Contreras who is not only a tough out, but has power to all fields. He spots a perfect fastball with arm-side run and forces Contreras into the only result such a pitch would allow.
It’s very much impossible to say that Bleier is going to be able to replicate his 2017 season, because these numbers exist for a reason. If worse comes to worst, Bleier has the capability of staying in the same kind of emergency role he was placed in. If the sole reasoning is because of his knack for throwing strikes and forcing hitters to create their own rallies, it’s something.
But you know, he was a Friday night guy at Florida Gulf Coast, and as he’s progressed through the minor leagues, he was always a pitcher that bested the peripherals. He’s weird in the way the Orioles like, and after 2017, he’s a player that’ll be remembered for being able to do what so few Oriole pitchers could.