Hunter Harvey burst onto the major league scene last August and showed that he can be a shutdown reliever. Up until last year, the Orioles and Harvey had been clinging to the notion of him being a starter. But injuries and endurance concerns pushed that issue.
The hard-throwing right-hander made 11 starts at Double-A Bowie in 2019 and three relief appearances, putting up a 5.19 ERA. Then he was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk, where he was strictly a reliever, and he put up a 4.32 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 11.9 SO/9 and 4.40 SO/W.
And well all know the rest of the story — he had a stellar run in Baltimore the final few months of the season to end the year. In seven relief appearances with the big league club, Harvey had a 1.42 ERA and an eye-popping 15.6 SO/9.
Most of you probably already know that Hunter’s dad, Bryan, had a very successful nine-year MLB career as a reliever for the California Angels and Florida Marlins. In 322 games he had 177 saves, a 2.49 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 10.4 SO/9. So in a way, being a closer is in Hunter’s blood. A converted starter breaking into the majors, who was raised by an All-Star closer — it just seems destined to be. A passing of the torch from father to son, if you will.
But does a rebuilding club like the Orioles really need a closer and are they willing to pass that torch to Harvey so soon? For much of last year, Brandon Hyde did not want to define roles, as he preferred to mix and match in the ninth inning in lieu of naming a single guy as the closer.
Of the eight players who earned at least one save last year, Mychal Givens led the field. In 19 save opportunities, he was successful 11 times. But it’s important to note that in save situations, Givens had a 5.90 ERA and in non-save situations that number went down to 3.44. Although Givens set a career high last year with 12.3 SO/9, he also allowed averaged 1.9 HR/9, which was the highest of his career.
Harvey has the age advantage over Givens, and it’s not even a sure thing Givens will be around much longer. His name has come up in trade rumors for some time now. So if it comes down to the older, more expensive Givens and the younger, cheaper Harvey, the club will probably choose the latter.
With Harvey, there are going to be injury concerns because of his history. The Orioles were careful not to overwork him late last summer when he was promoted to the majors, and that will be a consideration moving forwards. So he would need to stay healthy and show endurance in order to nail down a consistent closer job.
As much as folks want to say the ninth inning is just another inning, it’s not. Not every pitcher can handle the pressures of closing out a game. It’s just different.
From the brief glimpse we got of Harvey on the mound the last two months of the season, it looks like he’s got the intangibles. He looks unflappable on the rubber, as though nothing really gets to him. He’s also calm and cool off of it, answering reporters’ questions in his easy-going Southern drawl, and with his unique style choices — the goatee along with a hairstyle that’s business in the front and party in the back.
He’s already gained somewhat of a cult following around town, with fans in the stands at Oriole Park late last year spotted with Harvey jerseys, mullet wigs and mustaches. Baltimore baseball fans need a larger than life figure like him to cheer for in these dark days of the rebuild until the team is competitive again. Harvey certainly seems to fit the bill, so far at least.
I’m not sure the analytics would support this, but I’m of the notion that defined roles in the bullpen lead to success. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and if they know when they are normally going to pitch, they can prepare accordingly. Let one guy take the closer job and run with it and see how things go from there. Right now, Harvey has to be a prime candidate for that job.