For years, a perennial strength for the Orioles has been their bullpen. While the starting pitching has regularly been suspect, the relievers could be trusted to close out games with slim leads. Closers and late-inning arms like Zach Britton, Brad Brach and Mychal Givens, or even Jim Johnson back in the day, usually get most of the plaudits, but the Birds have depended on an unlikely source of reliability out of the ‘pen this season.
Richard Bleier made his way to Baltimore back in February from the Yankees in return for “cash or a player to be named later”. He had just completed his rookie season as a 29-year-old in the Bronx. It was a year in which he performed well (1.96 ERA), but in a quite limited role (23 innings). All signs pointed to this being a depth move for the O’s, a player that could be stashed away in triple-A Norfolk and brought up in a roster crunch.
That’s exactly what happened, to start. The lefty began the season as a bullpen piece for the Tides for the first month of the season before earning his first call-up with the Birds on April 30th. He would make just one appearance (May 3 at Boston: four innings, one earned run on five hits, one walk and no strikeouts) before being sent back down on May 4th. Ten days later, he was back in Baltimore, and that’s where he’s been ever since.
As an option-able piece on a team with rampant starting pitching woes that routinely put pressure on the bullpen, one would think Bleier would have been sent down more than once by now. But he’s just been too good. So far this season, the southpaw has amassed 42.2 innings and boasts a 1.48 ERA, the best mark on the team.
Beyond ERA, which many would agree is not the finest measure of a reliever, what makes Bleier useful is his versatility out of the bullpen. He was used as a LOOGY early in the year and has now made a transition to an arm that can go at least one inning, usually two or more, in order to bridge the gap from starters to late-inning relievers. Of his last eight appearances, Bleier has pitched at least two innings five times.
More than meets the eye
There is no disputing that Bleier has had a fantastic season. He rarely allows runs and keeps the Orioles in a position to win just about every game in which he appears. But relievers are notoriously volatile figures in baseball, and if you read deeper into his numbers, it feels like an inevitable collapse is coming.
For starters, his 3.80 K/9 rate is the worst on the team. In fact, only Kevin McCarthy of the Royals has a worse mark in all of baseball among regular relievers, and he was just optioned to the minors about 10 days ago. Batters put the ball in play a lot against Bleier, yet they only have a .264 batting average on balls in play. In the minors, opponents typically had around a .300 BABIP against him.
But the lefty has routinely wiggled out of trouble to the tune of an 82.3 left-on-base percentage. Only Givens has a better mark on the team (89.2%), but he does it by striking out 26.5 percent of hitters. Bleier K’s only 9.9 percent of batters. Instead, his preferred method of getting outs is via the ground ball. His 67.7 percent ground ball rate is second on the team to only Britton (72.7%).
Finding a spot
All of this together gives Bleier a FIP of 4.05 and an xFIP of 4.39. Both marks are fifth on the team, which feels about right. It puts him behind the old reliables (Brach, Britton, Givens) and in the same ballpark as Donnie Hart and Darren O’Day.
These facts aren’t lost on Buck Showalter and the Orioles decision makers. Of Bleier’s 42.2 innings, 31.1 innings have come in low leverage situations, 8.1 in medium leverage and only 3.0 in high leverage. The coaching staff puts him into spots where he can succeed. Showalter had an odd comment last month that basically boiled down to “(Bleier)'s found a good role”. He’s not a starter. He’s not a closer. He’s a middle reliever, and that’s OK.
In the zone
Overall, hitters are putting the bat on the ball a lot more against the lefty. On pitches in the strike zone, they have a whopping 90 percent contact rate. His stuff simply isn’t fooling anyone.
The key to Bleier’s success seems to be his slider. He’s thrown it a lot this year (32.6 percent of all pitches) and he is throwing it 3.6 mph faster (up to 86.8 mph on average) than he did a season ago, according to Fangraphs. As a result, hitters are struggling more with pitches that he throws out of the strike zone. With the Yankees last season, batters had a 77.6 percent contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone. This year, that number is down to 69 percent.
But it’s a razor-thin margin for error for Bleier. His 1.9 walks per nine innings is a small enough number that he could stand to throw a few more balls, risk adding some walks but likely padding his strikeouts too. However, he will always be a pitch-to-contact type of hurler. A few too many walks could get him into a load of trouble.
Bleier is filling a role that it seemed like T.J McFarland was born for in year’s past. It never happened in Baltimore for the Rule 5 pick that is now with the Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s tough to survive as a pitcher in Major League Baseball without a blistering fastball. But the Orioles’ current southpaw has had modest success with two AL East teams now and continues to provide quality innings. Showalter will keep riding him in low leverage spots until it stops paying off.