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Mychal Givens: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

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The Orioles closer’s stuff is looking better than ever, but he’s getting beat. What Give(n)s?

MLB: AUG 27 Orioles at Nationals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mychal Givens might be the most frustrating player on the Orioles today. His stuff is capable of completely baffling hitters. But every now and then, with the game on the line, Givens goes out there and lays an egg.

Last Saturday evening, Brandon Hyde called on his closer in the bottom of the ninth to shut the door on the Tigers. The Orioles were clinging to a 4-3 lead against the worst team in the league. Givens blew through the first two Detroit batters on a strikeout and lineout. Only centerfielder Victor Reyes stood between the Orioles and a win.

Against the lefty, Givens missed low and inside with a slider for ball one. A fastball in the same spot went by Reyes for strike one. Givens stayed low and inside, and missed with a changeup. On pitch four, he went high and away with a fastball. He should have gotten the call, but he didn’t. On the fifth pitch, Givens went back inside with the fastball, in exactly the same spot as the first one. Reyes was ready for it: he turned and drove Givens’ offering just into the bleachers at Comerica Park. It was Reyes’ second home run of the year.

Givens was blowing away Tigers hitters, except until the moment he didn’t.

Flash forward to Tuesday, September 17. With the game tied 4-4 in the top of the ninth, Givens came in to face Toronto. Up to the plate stepped the lefty Justin Smoak. In 2017, Smoak hit .270 with 38 home runs. This year, he’s a shadow of himself, with a .208 average, 20 home runs, and a 3-for-47 line against Orioles pitching (which is really saying something).

Givens greeted Smoak with a fastball way outside. Next pitch: another fastball, mid-level and somewhat inside. Smoak demolished it. It the first time in Givens’ career that he’d allowed homers in two straight games. Then, with pinpoint control, he went on to strike out Teoscar Hernández on three pitches, and Jonathan Davis on four. “He wasn’t sharp when he came on, but he is now,” said MASN commentator Ben McDonald. Too little, too late. In the same inning, now down 5-4, Givens gave up a single to the .210-hitting Danny Jansen, who laced a high fastball into the outfield. He lost a nine-pitch battle with Bo Bichette, walking the rookie on nine pitches. The lefty Cavan Biggio saw seven pitches, including a bevy of fastballs outside. He stung No. 8 over the head of Mason Williams, who crashed into the wall trying to snag it. Two runs scored.

How can we make some sense of the Givens enigma? Here’s my best attempt.

There are three types of Givens appearances:

1) Givens makes batters look foolish.

2) Givens is nowhere near the plate.

3) Givens is good, until he’s bad.

Givens has a weird delivery. He’ll turn his back to the hitter entirely, then whip his whole upper half around and finish it off a flick of the sidearm. This gives his fastball an enormous amount of movement. It’s also extremely tough to control.

The Type 2 starts don’t both me too much. The same would sometimes happen to Darren O’Day, if you recall. Givens goes through stretches where he’s off with his delivery, then stretches where he’s not. Over 11 games this past month, Givens had an ERA of 0.82, whiffing an impressive 17 hitters. Over his last 26 games, he had allowed two home runs.

Plus, in the two meltdowns described, the stuff was clearly not the problem. They asked Brandon Hyde after Toronto’s game whether Givens might be fatigued at this point in the season. “I’m seeing 96,” said Hyde. “No. He’s been hot and cold this year.” No, what concerns me about the Type 3 Givens starts is our closer getting beat in the mental game.

The 2019 season has been Givens’ worst, statistically. He’s got an ERA of 4.40, far higher than his next-worst, 3.99 in 2018. He’s got seven losses and seven blown saves, and for the first time in his career, his WPA (win probability added) is below zero—meaning he’s costing this team games. His home run rate is also a career high—1.9 per every nine innings.

However, Givens’ strikeout/nine innings rate (12.6) is also a career high. Opponents are hitting .202 off him this year. What this is means is that Givens is in a boom-or-bust cycle: strikeouts or home runs.

The ball is traveling farther this year, and fastballers who miss badly (ehem, Miguel Castro) are suffering as a result. But there are lessons: part of the reason Givens didn’t become a trade piece this July was a combination of command issues early on, plus tactical misfires late in the season.

If you break down his two bad appearances, this appears right: Givens got three strikeouts in those two innings, but he allowed two home runs. Essentially, he gets hit hard when he becomes predictable: Reyes saw Givens was pitching him low-and-inside, sat fastball, and got his pitch. Against Smoak, with Givens’ command not quite there, Smoak sat on a fastball and got a well-placed one.

“It can be tough to be a bullpen guy,” says Givens. He’s right. One bad inning can really tank your stats. I think Givens can pull it together, but he needs to make sure he doesn’t get predictable.