The season is nearly halfway through, and the Orioles have played themselves into postseason contention.
Making the cut will mean tightening up in a few areas, one of them being closing out wins. And it’s worth taking a look at how Cole Sulser has been handling the job so far.
In his first year with the team, Sulser has become the team’s de facto closer, recording a team-high five saves in seven opportunities. He’s earned the trust of manager Brandon Hyde, who has continued to lean on the right-hander to close the door since first giving him the responsibility in the first series of the season, sometimes asking him to stretch himself over two innings.
But has Sulser been worthy of that trust? Closing isn’t a job for everyone; how has he fared in that role so far?
The overall stats look good. The 30-year-old rookie sports a 3.46 ERA, and a decent WHIP of 1.15. The reason for the low WHIP is that Sulser has proven this season to be hard to hit; in 13 innings, batters are only hitting .114 against him. In high leverage situations, the exact spots in which you’d want your closer to thrive, batters are only at a .150 average against him.
The caveat, however, is his control. Velocity and an ability to miss bats are important for a closer, but nothing is more vital than being able to avoid walks, and Sulser has had an issue with free passes. He’s walked 10 in 13 innings, and the difference between his strikeout percentage and walk percentage is only 5.6 percent.
For comparison’s sake, Kenley Jansen, who leads the National League in saves, is at 23.3. Liam Hendriks, who leads the American League, is at 32.1. Zack Britton, who while tremendous in Baltimore was no stranger to wildness when he’d lose a feel for his sinker, was never below 13.7 in his three years as the Orioles’ closer.
Sulser showed that feast-or-famine style in his last outing, both displaying why Hyde is so intrigued by his potential in the job, and why he could someday soon pitch himself out of it. Against the Red Sox on Saturday, Sulser looked at the start like a lights-out stopper, blowing away Jackie Bradley Jr. and Jose Peraza to start the ninth, then getting a red-hot Alex Verdugo to fly out. Hyde stayed with him in the 10th and it looked like a good move, as Sulser made quick work of the dangerous Rafael Devers to start.
But then, Sulser from just a few paragraphs ago showed up. In the blink of an eye, he had lost it. J.D. Martinez walked on six pitches, Xander Bogaerts walked on four, and Mitch Moreland walked on four, bringing in the go-ahead run. Hyde kept waiting for his pitcher to right himself, but Sulser had lost his rudder.
That’s the wildness that a team can’t afford when trying to hold a slim lead in the ninth, and it’s why all Orioles fans should greet the notion of Sulser as the closer going forward with a grimace and a nervous sigh. More so in the ninth than in any other inning, walks lead to runs. It’s a weakness that cannot be hid.
And it’s not just one bad outing that’s dragging down his stats. In his previous outing against Toronto, Sulser walked two and allowed a run in just over an inning. Three appearances before that, he walked two in an inning of work, allowed two runs and blew a save against Philadelphia. The outing before that, he walked two but escaped unscathed against Washington.
That wildness doesn’t always mean walks; it can also mean a lack of command, as was the case when he blew a save on July 30 with the Orioles leading the Yankees 6-5. Sulser missed his spot by at least a foot with a pair of fastballs. Aaron Judge somehow missed it the first time. He hit the second mistake about 800 feet for a three-run home run.
This isn’t to say Sulser can’t continue at closer for the Orioles. He just can’t with this fatal flaw. He’s shown a closer’s ability to stifle bats, provided a .133 BABIP doesn’t indicate that that success is a mirage.
But he hasn’t been able to keep himself from jump-starting the offenses and rallies he’s trying to put down. That makes closing a risky proposition, though to Sulser’s advantage, he doesn’t have a surefire candidate standing in his way. Mychal Givens has been terrific, but struggled in the role last year. Miguel Castro can be feast-or-famine himself. Shawn Armstrong is relatively unproven in that role. So is Tanner Scott.
Sulser is the guy for now. If his command doesn’t improve, however, there could be a change coming sooner rather than later.