Richard Bleier is one of the most lovable Orioles on the 40-man roster.
He’s an oddball. The 32-year-old lefty has supposedly never drank anything in his life but milk and water. He talks incessantly. When the Diamondbacks crossed paths with the Orioles in July, longtime Oriole Adam Jones said he was looking forward to seeing Bleier because he “missed his shtick.”
“I know I’m weird and left-handers are weird in general anyway,” Bleier told the Baltimore Sun in 2017. “I can just blame it on being left-handed and there’s no problem. Everybody understands.”
Bleier provides this team with a lot of intangibles. He was one of the spiritual leaders of the #VoteTrey campaign that, while unsuccessful, provided fans with some delightful behind-the-scenes moments. Bleier also lends a hand coaching his best pal Mychal Givens’ youth baseball team in the offseason.
As the better half (?) of what the other relievers call the “Mr. and Mrs. Givens” marital unit, Bleier provides a link back to the dominant Orioles bullpens of olde, which housed guys like Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Zach Britton. He and Givens helped coach the younger relievers through a bad stretch this summer, sitting around going through film with them or providing—pretty direct—feedback on guys’ performances. When Givens allowed a game-tying home run on September 14 against the Detroit Tigers, mid-season addition Shawn Armstrong asked Givens afterward whether it was a good pitch. Armstrong recalls that Bleier interrupted: “Absolutely not, it was right down the middle. It should have been hit out of the park.” That kind of “blunt honesty,” say the other guys, has made the bullpen more fun this year.
The trouble is, Bleier is coming off of his worst career year, which makes his future with the team a little cloudy.
A 2008 Rangers draft pick, Bleier languished in the minors for eight years until the Yankees gave him a shot in the majors in May 2016. After he put up a 1.96 ERA (1.04 WHIP) for New York that season, a “really impressed” Dan Duquette signed Bleier during spring training the following year.
Bleier followed up with a brilliant 2017, posting a 1.99 ERA in 63 innings. His 26 K’s in that stretch ranked among the lowest for qualifying relievers, but (fun fact!) his ERA+ through April 2018 was then the best in major league history for relievers with a minimum of 95 innings. He’s not a dominant “swing and miss” guy, preferring instead to pitch to contact and challenge hitters with his darting cutter and sinker. When he’s on, it’s his deceptiveness and movement that makes the stuff play.
The trouble is, this season he often wasn’t on. In May 2018, Bleier was doing his usual Bleier thing, pitching to a 1.93 ERA in 32 innings, when he suffered a season-ending lat tear that required surgery. He started this season rehabbing, and the results were rough.
Bleier’s ERA ballooned to 5.37 in 2019, while the WHIP also jumped to 1.319. The walks were up, too. For all that he was hurt, in some ways, Bleier was unlucky. His K/9 rate was actually up a little (wasn’t it up everywhere across the league, though?), batters’ average exit velocity was nothing out of the usual for him, and Fangraphs’ stats show no decline in velocity between 2017, 2018, and this year. Bleier appears to have been the beneficiary of some subpar defense—his FIP for the year was 4.19 (not low, but low compared to 5.37).
Still, it’s clear the injury caused problems with his stuff. The big difference is pitch movement. Just watching him with the naked eye this season was enough to tell the cutter and the slider were quite flat. If you’re into graphics and things, take a look at these:
Besides the fact that in 2019 Bleier upgraded his slider over his changeup and fastball, what stands out is not so much a loss of velocity, but rather movement—especially vertical break (the right portion of the graph). The stats show it: Bleier’s pitches were flatter this season.
Bleier had a particularly atrocious debut in May, his ERA a troubling 9.22 by June 4. His August ERA of 6.75 was also bad. In the middle of one game against Boston where he faced three batters, allowing a walk, a double, and a sac fly, I remember thinking that maybe it was time to put old Dick out to pasture.
But Bleier bounced back with an effective September, posting a 2.93 ERA while hitters hit just .180 against him. Considering what he was coming off of this season, it was a dramatic improvement. His stuff, in particular, seemed to be back to biting.
It’s too soon to say whether Bleier is back to what he once was, and unfortunately, the reality of contract situations is that this may turn out to be some other team’s headache to work through. Like Givens, Bleier is eligible for an offseason arbitration raise. Unlike Givens, though, this is Bleier’s first year of arbitration eligibility and he made only $573,000 this season. Bleier can be still be had on the cheap, and his leadership in the ‘pen might make it worthwhile for the Orioles brass to take the risk and see how his arm looks.
Take a good look at the picture below, because there’s a good chance that at least one of these three knuckleheads will no longer be with Baltimore next season. It may make sense, baseball- and business-wise, to break up this group, but it doesn’t mean I won’t miss them.