Probably nobody in baseball is more unheralded than a middle-innings reliever on a bad team. So it was, most of the time, with Cole Sulser, Travis Lakins Sr., and César Valdez.
This trio pitched to a 2.56 ERA in 61.2 innings. They were workhorses in the bullpen, with 50 appearances between them (only Tanner Scott pitched in more games than Lakins’ 22). They were innings-eaters, the guys Brandon Hyde turned to when Wade LeBlanc’s reserves were spent after four innings or when Asher Wojciechowski allowed one four-bagger too many his second time through the lineup. They led the team, so to speak, in saves with a combined nine.
They took very different paths to the Orioles roster. A twenty-fifth rounder, Sulser kicked around for six years in the minors before the introduction of data resulted in a spike in his strikeout rate and a major league debut at age 30 for the Rays in 2019. Onetime top prospect Lakins, a converted starter, posted a 3.86 ERA and a 17.7% strikeout rate in 16 games for Boston before getting traded to, and quickly waived by, the Cubs. 35-year-old journeyman César Valdez made his major-league debut in 2010, spent 2012-15 in the Mexican League, returned to MLB with Houston in 2016, was back pitching in Mexico in 2018-19, then signed a minor league deal with the Orioles in January, and joined the big-league club on August 29th.
Though they played a similar role for the Orioles in 2020, all three profile differently as pitchers. Sulser is fastball-first, his rising 94-mph heater playing off of a diving changeup. Lakins has a four-pitch mix: a cutter, a four-seam fastball, a looping curveball, and a changeup. Valdez’s best pitch is the “dead fish,” a changeup with 8.5 inches more drop than average according to Statcast, and his fastball tops out at 86 mph.
Although Sulser had the spottiest season of the three, the Orioles have reason to stay interested in him. Enamored with Sulser’s stuff, Hyde handed him the closer’s job in July, but a month later Sulser was 1-4 with a 4.70 ERA, and Hyde found himself forced to use him earlier and earlier. Sulser’s problem—unlike Orioles bullpen arms of 2019—wasn’t the home run (he and Lakins had an 0.8 and 0.7 HR/9 rate between them). It was walks: Sulser averaged a team-worst 6.8 free passes a game. This gave him an unfortunately high 1.50 WHIP and 1.12 SO/W ratio. And yet, if Sulser could cut down on the walks, he’d be tantalizing, as his peripherals suggest. Sulser is in the top 74th percentile in exit velocity, top 84th in hard hit percentage, top 80th in barrel percentage, 79th in fastball spin, and 74th in whiff rate. Sulser’s stuff challenges hitters—if he can locate it.
Lakins was the reverse of Sulser in two ways: he got more high-leverage looks as the season went on (though only five of his 22 appearances came in the eighth inning or later), and his results seem to have been better than the actual stuff suggests. For instance, a 2.81 ERA looks a lot more impressive than a 4.01 FIP. An adjusted earned run average of 163 was good, yet his 1.481 WHIP was high. He has a high fastball and curveball spin rate, but was in the bottom 20th percentile for pitchers in exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate (meaning he was hit hard). He averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, but his swing-and-miss rate also hovered in the bottom fifth of MLB pitchers. What to make of this? Small sample size weirdness is my best guess.
Then there is the fascinating Valdez, who made only nine appearances for the Orioles down the stretch, but certainly made the most of them. Hyde certainly seems to have been stretching Valdez out for the closer role: in eight of nine appearances, Valdez pitched through the ninth inning or later, including one-inning stints to close out the game in his last four appearances. Valdez pitched great in his limited time in this role: he had a 1.26 ERA with just seven hits, three walks, and 12 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. His WHIP was 0.698, his ERA+ a ridiculous 368. Opponents batted .143 against him to go with a comical 2.6% barrel rate. Nobody could hit the dead fish. This arrangement seems unlikely to continue in 2021, though, given Valdez’s history: he has a career 6.23 ERA in the majors, and in his last two long MLB stints, 2010 and 2017, opponents hit .337 and .320 off him. The dead fish does seem pretty hittable if hitters were often exposed to it. On the other hand, as Joe Trezza has pointed out, Valdez—quite unusually—switches arm angles constantly, giving hitters lots of looks. This might allow him to compensate for his lack of velocity.
The Orioles made a lot of improvements in 2020, especially on the pitching side, where their club ERA dropped by more than a full run, and especially in the bullpen, which went from the worst in the MLB in 2019 to one of baseball’s 10 best. Yet one goal Brandon Hyde set for his team this season that they absolutely, flat-out failed to meet was carving out consistent roles in the bullpen. On August 1st, after a Cole Sulser save that seemed to augur a permanent closing role, Brandon Hyde felt optimistic. “If guys are getting people out, they are going to pitch in big spots. I am just looking for some consistency,” Hyde said.
It didn’t work out that way, with key pieces like Hunter Harvey and Tanner Scott troubled by injury and inconsistency, and the Sulser/Lakins/Valdez trio too infrequently successful in the ninth to lock down a permanent job. Nevertheless, there was enough good news here that we should see more of them come next spring.