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Paul Fry’s 2019 was a mess, and the juiced ball didn’t help

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The O’s lefty led all AL relievers in losses, partly because he couldn’t stop giving up dingers.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Quick trivia question, O’s fans: of the 38 pitchers who took the mound for the club in 2019, which one appeared more than any other?

OK, the headline and the photo probably give it away. But be honest: if I hadn’t tipped my hand, how many guesses would it have taken you to land on Paul Fry?

He’s nowhere close to a household name, despite his excellent taste in first names. He’s not a closer, he’s not a setup man; he doesn’t, in fact, really have any specific role. He joined the O’s in a blink-and-you-missed-it transaction, acquired from Seattle for international bonus slot money in April 2017.

Yet there’s the unassuming, second-year left-hander, sitting atop the games pitched leaderboard for the Birds in 2019. Fry toed the rubber 66 times this season — 67, if you count his one-game demotion to Triple-A Norfolk in late June — and if there’s one thing you can say about him, it’s that he always answered the call when summoned.

That’s not to say he was particularly good.

Let’s start with Fry’s uninspiring 5.34 ERA. Now, perhaps he got a little unlucky, considering his Fielding Independent Pitching mark was more than half a run lower. But a 4.71 FIP isn’t exactly sending you to the All-Star Game, either.

Another unfortunate fact about Fry’s season is that he had a tendency to fall apart at the worst possible time. It’s one thing to give up some runs when the game is already decided one way or the other. But many of Fry’s bad outings came in close games, so much so that he ended up with a 1-9 record. One and nine! I don’t generally put much weight into win-loss records for pitchers, but when a relief pitcher loses nine games, he’s probably doing something wrong. Fry led the AL in losses by a reliever.

In five of his defeats, Fry was tagged for two or more runs; in four of them, he didn’t retire a batter. When he was bad, he was very bad indeed. Fry was charged with a blown save in two of his losses, and in three other games in which he wasn’t saddled with the L.

It was a disappointing campaign for a hurler who entered the season as one of the more reliable arms in the O’s bullpen, thanks to his solid work as a rookie in 2018. That year, Fry posted a 3.35 ERA in 35 games and became the Orioles’ primary setup man to Mychal Givens in the second half of the season, after veteran relievers Zack Britton, Brad Brach, and Darren O’Day were dealt in July.

One thing former manager Buck Showalter liked about Fry was that he wasn’t just a one-batter specialist. The southpaw actually had reverse splits; lefty swingers had a .702 OPS against him while righties posted a minuscule .556 mark. The reverse-splits trend held true again in 2019 for Fry, except that he was much worse against both: left-handed batters ripped him for an .839 OPS and six home runs in 118 plate appearances, while right-handers had a .679 mark in 137 PAs.

So what went wrong for Fry in 2019? Well, part of the problem was that he allowed too many baserunners, as his mediocre 1.45 WHIP will attest. Fry had only eight perfect outings in which he faced three or more batters, and just two in which he faced four or more. When you’re not throwing clean innings, you’re going to be susceptible to giving up runs. #analysis

But if you want to point your finger at one issue that may have torpedoed Fry’s season: it’s those damn juiced baseballs.

You’ve probably heard: 2019 was a ridiculous year for home runs around the major leagues. Players crushed a record 6,776 roundtrippers, and the ball was noticeably flying further than ever before. Some players believed MLB purposely juiced the balls — a charge that MLB denied — and independent studies noted differences in the baseball this year.

Whatever the reason, more and more fly balls that once resulted in outs were now leaving the ballpark, and Fry was one of the most susceptible. Last year, he allowed only one home run in 37.2 innings. This year, he was tagged for seven in 57.1 innings, raising his HR/9 rate by almost a full point. That’s despite the fact that his fly ball percentage (22.8) was nearly identical to last year (21.2).

A whopping 18.9 percent of the fly balls Fry allowed in 2019 turned into home runs, compared to just 4.5 last season. The major league average this year was 15.3 percent, up from 12.7 in 2018. So yes, all pitchers suffered somewhat in the home run department, but Fry even more than most.

MLB hasn’t indicated whether there will be any effort to deaden the baseballs in 2020, but Fry can only hope that’s the case. If so, he could return to being the solid if unspectacular reliever who debuted in 2018, rather than the gopher ball-prone hot mess that emerged during his sophomore slump.

The non-contending 2020 Orioles can certainly make room for a durable left-hander with options who’s making the league minimum, And as one of only five active Pauls in the major leagues, Fry’s got the full support of #TeamPaul behind him. For whatever that’s worth.