This week we learned that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association are discussing some drastic rule changes. Changes being discussed include a pitch clock, a universal designated hitter, expansion of active rosters, reduction of September rosters, and a penalty for “tanking.”
Another proposed rule change would drastically alter how bullpens are utilized. In an effort to speed pace of play, MLB suggested a rule that would require all pitchers to face a minimum of three batters when brought into a game. This would put an end to managers stringing together favorable match-ups in late innings by asking a reliever to retire one batter.
This would have a huge impact on game play, but also on some careers. As Ken Rosenthal says, “The left-on-left specialist — a left-handed reliever who sometimes faces only one left-handed hitter — soon might be an endangered species in Major League Baseball.”
There will be ample discussion about the merits and wisdom of such a change (feel free to debate in the comments section). But here, I want to look at the three most likely left-handed pitchers to break camp in the Orioles bullpen: Tanner Scott, Richard Bleier, and Paul Fry. Will these pitchers be able to cover themselves against right-handed hitters if a three batter required is implemented? Or would their left/right split stats render them part of the endangered species that Rosenthal mentions?
In 2017, Scott was high on the Orioles’ list of top prospects according to many publications. His ability to make the radar gun show triple digits has enamored scouts since coming into the organization. That live arm prompted many to label him a potential future closer. When rating Scott as the #6 prospect in the system in their 2017 Prospect Watch, MLB.com said that “Scott’s elite fastball gives him closer potential, as he’ll routinely hit 100 mph (or higher) while sitting comfortably at 95-99.”
The fastball velocity has translated to the major leagues (average of 97.5 MPH in his two seasons) but the results have not (5.40 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 2018). While he is still young and learning, there are signs that he will struggle if needing to face right-handed hitters. His split stats from 2018 are very concerning. He handled lefties impressively, holding them to a slash line of .218/.317/.322. He struck out 35 of the 102 lefties he faced. But right-handers slashed .295/.377/.500 and he struck out only 30% of them.
Part of this can be explained by the fact that Scott is a two-pitch pitcher at this point in his career, throwing a four-seam fastball and slider nearly evenly in 2018. Another pitch, perhaps a changeup, could be effective in neutralizing right-handed batters and improve his splits. Scott would also benefit from a drastic improvement in command. He walked 4.7 batters per nine innings last season, which is problematic no matter what side of the plate a batter stands on.
Despite the fact that Scott is far more effective against lefties than righties, that shouldn’t change the Orioles’ plans for him. He still possesses one of the better arms in the system and will be given every chance to fulfill the potential that caused scouts to tab him as a future closer.
When Richard Bleier injured his lat in June, Buck Showalter constantly said that his presence in the bullpen would be missed more than we know. Part of that is because he was extremely effective, positing an ERA of under two in 2017, and he was on pace to do it again in 2018. But it is also because he is so capable of getting hitters on both sides of the plate out.
Let’s start with 2017 since 2018 provides a smaller sample size due to that injury. Right-handers had 148 plate appearances against him and left-handers had 117. Amazingly, he held both sides to an OPS that was within 12 points of each other. Righties hit for a higher average off of him that lefties (.273 to .235) but he held those righties to a lower slugging percentage (.360 to .382). It is no surprise that he became such a trusted part of Showalter’s bullpen. During his shortened 2018, some of these gaps widened while others shrank. Left-handers slashed .283/.328/.302 while right-handers posted a .288/.293/.411 line.
Bleier provides an example that Tanner Scott could follow. While Bleier’s fastball averaged less than 90 MPH, he has a wide arsenal of other offerings. Last season he throw a four-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, changeup, slider, and curveball. This is undoubtedly part of the reason why his split stats are more even than Scott’s.
It is clear that the three batter requirement won’t impact Bleier at all and that Brandon Hyde can comfortably use him in any situation. Perhaps more importantly, this rule change could make him an even more attractive trade target for competing clubs.
In a 2018 season that sorely lacked bright spots, Paul Fry stood out. The reliever who was acquired by the O’s in an under-the-radar trade in April 2017 made his major league debut in late June. He made the most of his opportunity, pitching to an ERA of 3.35 in 37.2 innings. He struck out nearly nine batters per game and registered a WHIP of 1.27. While Fry isn’t guaranteed a spot in Brandon Hyde’s bullpen, his solid rookie season most likely gives him the inside track at making the club.
Looking at Fry’s split stats floored me. He fared better against right-handers, which isn’t extremely rare. But it was the extent of his success that was shocking; he allowed a slash line of .218/.292/.264. That is good for an OPS of .556! When comparing that with the slash line he allowed to fellow lefties (.264/.381/.321), you wouldn’t know that Fry pitches with his left hand.
That is abnormally large reverse gap in splits that is likely to return to the mean in the future. But it is clear that Fry needs to get better against left-handed hitting. But the very fact that he is left-handed will keep getting him opportunities against lefties, and his success against right-handed hitters is quite a positive.