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Trades and a strong finish cemented Mychal Givens’ status as Orioles’ closer

Givens struggled over the summer but dominated in September, becoming the undisputed closer. He is also the Orioles’ best trade chip.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2018 season began, Mychal Givens was one of the younger pitchers in a veteran bullpen that included clubhouse leaders Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, and Brad Brach. On the afternoon of July 31, Givens found himself as the new elder statesman in a once dominant bullpen that had been purged by Dan Duquette’s trades. The leadership responsibilities and duties as unchallenged closer did not rattle Givens, as a disappointing summer turned into a dominant September.

Givens’ final 2018 stat line is interesting, especially when compared with last season’s. He followed 2017, the finest statistical season of his young career, with the worst season of his career. The 28 year-old appeared in 69 games (exactly the same as last season) that covered 76.2 innings (two less than last year). Despite the similar workload, he allowed ten more earned runs this year, causing his ERA to jump from 2.75 to 3.99.

Peripheral statistics support Givens regressing somewhat this year, but don’t explain that drastic jump in ERA. His WHIP rose from 1.04 to 1.19, fueled by four more hits allowed and five more free passes. While he allowed a few more baserunners, his strikeout numbers declined. After punching out 11.4, 11.6, and 10.1 batters per nine innings during his first three seasons in Baltimore, he registered a strikeout rate of just 9.3 per nine innings in 2018. This is not explained by a loss in velocity.

Despite those troubling numbers, there were some positive developments for Givens this season. He allowed only four home runs (down from ten in 2017), which comes out to an impressive rate of 0.5 per nine innings. His ERA+ of 104 was the lowest mark of his career but still had him rated as an above average pitcher. And despite Givens’ ERA jump, his FIP of 3.07 was half a run lower than 2017. This suggests what we all saw: the Orioles defense did not do its pitchers any favors. All these numbers added up to a WAR of 1.0, which ranked him 10th on the O’s.

It took a season’s worth of ups and downs to get Givens to those final numbers. He started slowly in April, but turned things around in May and his ERA sat at 2.84 on May 21. He fell apart after that, pitching to an ERA of 6.83 from May 22 through July. As the Orioles prepared for their July firesale, it is unclear if Givens’ struggles impacted a potential trade. The thought amongst O’s reporters was that Givens was as nearly untouchable because of how much service time he has left. But if he was pitching like one of the better relievers in baseball as he did in 2017, a team could have made an offer the Warehouse couldn’t refuse.

Instead, Givens’ veteran bullpen mates were traded and Givens found himself as the closer in August. He responded by registering a 2.89 ERA that month. But that was just an appetizer for what we would see in September and October. Givens dominated in his last twelve outings (14.2 innings) of the season, pitching to an ERA of 1.84 and an unfathomable WHIP of 0.34. Interestingly, his K/9 ratio of 6.1 that month was the lowest of his season.

Givens ended the season with nine saves after not converting one prior to 2018. After permanently taking over ninth inning duties in August, he converted eight saves in ten chances. He proved that he has the makeup necessary to close games.

For those who still see the value in the “win” statistic, it was a disappointing season for Givens. He consistently found himself in big moments over his first three seasons and rose to the occasion; he entered the 2018 season with a career record of 18-3. He went 0-7 this year, a result of some very poor stretches as well as pitching on a team that won 45 games.

Whoever takes over as the Orioles’ decision maker will have an interesting decision to make regarding Givens. He would certainly have a big role on the 2019 Orioles; he would be the unquestioned closer, a veteran presence in the bullpen, and one of the longest tenured players on the team. After he witnessed a few of his bullpen teammates be traded, Givens talked about taking on a leadership role:

“I’m trying to do stuff to help teach the younger guys more about being a reliever.”

Such a veteran presence would provide valuable leadership on a young, rebuilding club. But Givens is probably the Orioles’ most valuable asset at this point. After his strong finish to 2018, he would be quite valuable to rival executives and the Orioles could boost their rebuild by trading him. The new front office needs to quickly figure out what to do with Givens. He is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason and is under club control through the 2021 season. Will the Orioles be competitive before he reaches free agency? Only the most optimistic Birdland residents would say yes, and it would be in the final year of his current contract. The question of whether or not to trade Givens will be one of the most debated topics amongst Orioles fans once front office personnel is in place.

Mychal Givens is an important figure in the Orioles’ future whether he is on the 2019 Opening Day roster or not. If he is, he will be one of the key players on the team. If not, he will be traded for prospects that we hope will contribute on the next competitive team in Baltimore.