One way to know that the 2018 Orioles season hasn’t exactly gone as planned is the steady parade of less-than-household names heading from Norfolk to Baltimore. Paul Fry is an example of that. You are forgiven by the Orioles gods for not knowing who exactly Fry was when he was called up in late June.
As it turns out, he has a history suggesting that he could be a contributor at the highest level. Throughout his minor league career, he consistently amassed nice strikeout numbers (11.1 per nine innings) despite a fastball in the low 90’s. Like many young pitchers, he struggled mightily with command (more details to follow). The 25-year old southpaw now finds himself with a major league opportunity that should continue as bullpen arms will likely be traded by the end of the month.
Fry was drafted out of a community college in Michigan in the 17th round in 2013 by Seattle. He didn’t even start playing baseball until high school, as was reported in a recent Baltimore Sun profile of Fry. His size (six feet) discouraged him from pursuing a college football career and he instead picked up baseball. He was quickly noticed by scouts and received the opportunity to play at the professional level.
During Fry’s time in the lower levels of Seattle’s minor league system, he showed flashes of brilliance. His ERA at single A during his first full professional season (2014) was a tidy 2.71. It lowered to 2.03 in the 2015 season that he spent between high A and AA affiliates. His WHIP during that 2015 campaign was 1.15 and he averaged 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings in fifty games (eighty innings). Fry had established himself as a relief pitcher worth watching in the Mariners’ system and he was placed on the 40-man roster.
Fry was promoted to AAA Tacoma to begin the 2016 and his ERA of 2.78 would indicate a successful season. But other metrics did not support that. His WHIP jumped to an alarming 1.44. That number was fueled by the putrid 5.1 walks per nine innings that Fry was allowing. This was an increase of nearly two free passes per game from his previous season.
After breaking camp with Tacoma again in 2017, he allowed four runs in his first appearance of the season and then a roster crunch came. He was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster and traded to Baltimore on April 14 for $198,000 in international signing bonus money. He did not impress during his first season in the O’s organization. Allowing baserunners via base on balls remained an issue (BB/9 of 4.8) and his overall WHIP rose to 1.53. Predictably, his ERA corrected to a pedestrian 4.33 and he was demoted from Norfolk to Bowie in the process. He broke spring training this season with at AA despite experiencing some past success at the AAA level. Things were not looking good for Paul Fry at the start of this season.
But Fry pitched very well for Bowie (2.84 ERA in 19 innings) and earned a promotion to Norfolk. The success continued and his combined minor league ERA this season is 3.19. The combined peripherals were also very encouraging. His 3.2 walks per nine inning is not great, but it was his lowest mark since 2015. His overall WHIP was an impressive 1.11. Perhaps most importantly, Fry was able to keep runners off base while not compromising his ability to miss bats; he averaged 12.1 punchouts per nine innings, a mark that his higher than his career average.
Better command and continued strikeout stuff led to Fry’s promotion to the Orioles on June 29. The results at the major league level have been encouraging. In 6.1 innings pitched (spanning six outings) he has allowed one earned run (four overall). His WHIP is an impressive 1.10 and he has struck out seven batters. Most importantly, he has not walked a batter yet.
What exact role could Fry fill in the bullpen for the remainder of this season and into the future? His very limited major league sample size suggests that the left/right splits hold true for him. Left-handed batters have managed only two hits in eleven at-bats against him. If that continues, we could be looking at a left-handed specialist.
But he has demonstrated the ability to provide extended outings, making him more flexible and valuable. Fry’s 338 minor league innings occured throughout 211 games. That averages out to about five batters retired per appearance. That ability has been put on display during his short time in Baltimore. He pitched 1.2 innings in his major league debut in Philadelphia and then went 2.1 clean innings on July 6. The rest of his outings have been matchup situations.
The long-term outlook for left-handed relief depth is actually fairly encouraging in Baltimore, even with Zach Britton’s return next season very unlikely. Richard Bleier is certain to occupy a spot in the 2019 bullpen if he makes a full recovery from his injury. The organization loves Tanner Scott’s live arm, despite his struggles this season. He will presumably be given every chance to maintain a spot in the bullpen and his level of talent suggests he’ll grasp it at some point. Donnie Hart had a fantastic 2016 rookie season but has struggled with consistency since then.
So where does that leave Fry? I would imagine that he would be below Bleier and Scott on the organization’s list of lefty relievers. While not impossible that three southpaws are carried, it is unlikely.
One thing is certain: the remainder of the 2018 campaign will provide Paul Fry a golden opportunity to finally show what he can provide at the major league level. A solid showing for the remainder of this season could win him a spot in the club’s future plans.