In baseball’s most beleaguered bullpen, there may be no bewildering case than that of Mychal Givens.
Unknown names form almost the entirety of the Orioles’ roster, but Givens isn’t one of them. The hard-throwing right-hander has been a dynamic option out of the bullpen in recent seasons, and was at one point a key component of arguably baseball’s best bullpen along with Zack Britton, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day. His mix of sizzling fastballs and knee-buckling sliders mowed down hitters, and with a 3.12 career ERA and 10.4 K-per-9 ratio entering this season, he was expected to be an ideal fit for the Orioles’ vacant closer role.
So far, it would appear this hasn’t panned out. Givens has yet to save a game, partly because he hasn’t been used in every one of those chances and partly because he couldn’t finish the ones he was asked to get. A quick glance at the numbers seems to reveal a pitcher who, like his teammates, is off to a slow start this season.
A deeper look, however, provides a reason for why – and where – the 28-year-old has had his early issues.
There has been a stark contrast between Givens the set-up man – i.e., the role he played before this season – and Givens the closer and game-finisher. In the eighth inning, Givens has been outstanding. He’s faced 19 batters and allowed only two hits, four baserunners and, most importantly zero runs. He’s fanned seven in five innings pitched.
In the ninth inning, however, the numbers take a dip. Givens has faced 23 batters in that frame and allowed seven hits and nine baserunners – a 1.80 WHIP, compared to 0.80 in the eighth. He’s still whiffed seven, but allowed five earned runs for an ERA of 9.00.
Runners get on against him more in the ninth than the eighth, and there is no inning in which a baserunner comes back to hurt a pitcher than in the ninth, when teams pinch hit, pinch run and shift their focus from trying to drive in two or more to making sure they score one.
Givens’s ninth-inning struggles, however, could be due more to overuse than the lack of command, lack of “stuff” or simple nerves that thwart most closers. Of the six appearances in which he’s started the ninth inning, four have come when he’s had to finish the eighth as well. Of those four appearances, Givens has allowed runs in three of them, and pitched to a 12.00 ERA.
That’s nothing unusual to see from relief pitchers, who are creatures of habit and tend to struggle when tasked with straddling their arsenal over two different innings. Givens is just as good at missing bats as he was during his borderline All-Star years; he’s striking out 12.6 per nine innings, the best rate of his career. But a pitcher who’s electrifying against a couple of hitters dims when forced to face six, seven or eight batters.
The best example of this was on March 31, in the Orioles’ third game of the season. Leading 7-4, manager Brandon Hyde rolled the dice and tried to get a two-inning save out of Givens. He made it through the eighth, working around his own error, but hit a wall in the ninth. He got two quick outs, but then gave up a walk and back-to-back singles, with the second one bringing in a run. He was at 49 pitches, and when you’re the sort of power pitcher Givens is, the fuse burns quickly.
This is all, of course, based around a small sample size, and there’s a good chance that Givens can make the adjustment and be the same shutdown pitcher he’s been in either a pure closer role or as a two-inning reliever. For now, however, the stats seem to be making a clear point: Issued a short workload, Givens can be the potential All-Star the Orioles expected to have. Stretch him out, however, and it doesn’t take long for the shine to wear off.