Flying in the face of sabermatricians throughout baseball, Orioles’ lefty Richard Bleier is putting up numbers that don’t follow the accepted recipe for success among pitchers. He is pitching nearly flawless baseball, giving the team a much-needed boost from a bullpen that has largely been a big disappointment.
Of course it’s early in the season and Rocky could be KO’d in his next appearance. But through Saturday’s games, his 0.61 ERA places him at the top of the list among the 30 A.L. relievers with at least 10 innings pitched, according to Fangraphs.
Bleier has chosen a road less traveled than his counterparts on his way to being among the league’s elite relievers at this point in the season. He pitches to contact, as opposed to tossing the swing-and-miss stuff most of his colleagues do.
His impressive 0.95 WHIP is sixth best on this list of 30. The five pitchers ahead of him – Chad Green, Edwin Diaz, Addison Reed, Tyler Clippard and David Robertson – all have K/9 ratios above nine. Bleier’s is 4.30, which ranks dead last.
Pitch-to-contact hurlers rarely attract the kind of interest from the new-guard scouting departments that strikeout pitchers do. After all, if a batter doesn’t make contact, he cannot reach base – unless he walks or gets hit by a pitch.
But who cares how Bleier is getting outs as long as he is getting outs? The real question is can this continue?
One stat that helps answer this is BABIP (batting average on balls in play). As one would expect, Bleier’s BABIP is low, .239, good for ninth lowest among this group of relievers.
Given that the league average BABIP is consistently around .300 (currently .294 in the A.L. through Saturday’s games, according to Baseball Reference), many would say that Bleier is being lucky and that his BABIP will rise closer to the norm. But his career BABIP (.259), covering an admittedly low 101 innings pitched, is significantly lower than the league’s.
Last season when he threw a career-high 63.1 IP, Bleier also had a .259 BABIP, so this year it should rise but there’s reason to conclude not by that much.
A big reason for Bleier’s lower BABIP, and a reason to hope his accomplishments will continue, is his ability to induce ground balls. Easier to turn into outs than line drives and impossible to result in home runs like fly balls, ground balls are essential to Bleier’s success – especially in homer-friendly Camden Yards. And, so far, he’s number one in this group of 30, with a GB rate of 60.9 percent.
Can he maintain this rate? There’s a good chance, given his career GB rate is 64.5 percent. And more good news – Bleier’s current 1.84 BB/9 rate is good for ninth on the list and is in line with his low career rate of 1.78.
So if his walk rate, ground ball rate and BABIP are more-or-less consistent with his history, what might be an issue for him maintaining his great start? It’s the long-ball. Thus far, Bleier has yet to allow a home run, resulting in zero percent HR/FB and HR/9 rates – numbers that cannot be sustained and will eventually catch up to him.
Last year, Bleier had a scary 14 percent HR/FB rate – much higher than his career 8.7 percent. That should come down, but certainly not all the way to zero. But if he keeps the ball in the park at a rate closer to his career mark, he should have a solid year.
For now, Bleier is reminding us that baseball players – like all human beings – can have their behavior predicted and measured only so far. Maybe Bleier’s bulldog mentality and positive attitude gives him an advantage on the mound that can’t be counted in ways that physical skills can be.
He allowed a glimpse into his makeup when he was quoted a couple weeks ago by Roch Kubatko and others after pitching in three straight games saying, “I told Buck I had nine years in the minor leagues, so I had nine years off. I’ll pitch every day the rest of the year. I really don’t care. As long as I’m in the big leagues, I’m available.”
However he does it, let’s hope that Bleier can continue to provide the relief the Orioles’ bullpen sorely needs.