There weren’t many areas on the roster where the Orioles looked particularly strong coming into the 2021 season. After all, they were still in the midst of a massive rebuild. Despite that, the team’s bullpen did appear poised to do well. Just about the entire unit was returning from a 2020 season in which they ranked ninth in MLB with a 3.90 ERA, and that included standout performances from Paul Fry and César Valdez.
Fry had transformed from a largely mediocre middle reliever in his first two big league seasons into one of Brandon Hyde’s most reliable arms, posting a 2.45 ERA and striking out 29 batters in 22 innings. Valdez was the feel-good story of the season’s final month, where the then-35-year-old became the team’s closer out of nowhere and featured a “dead fish” changeup that opposing batters just could not square up. Both players were going to fill crucial roles in the team’s 2021 relief group.
Unfortunately, it all fell apart for each player as the season wore on.
Fry was dominant through mid-June, holding a 1.78 ERA at the time, but a disastrous stretch that spanned 26 appearances through August 29 saw his ERA balloon to 6.08, and resulted in Fry being demoted to Triple-A Norfolk.
Valdez returned to the closer role, and was back to baffling hitters through the season’s first month. But a rough May (11.57 ERA) cost him the ninth inning, and continued struggles ultimately led to him being designated for assignment on two occasions.
However, while both players did struggle to the point that a minor league assignment was deserved, those struggles are not equal.
Major League Baseball began more strictly enforcing their rules against “sticky stuff” right around the time that Fry’s season fell off a cliff. Who knows if the two things are related, but it is worth noting, and it is something that Jim Palmer has reference in MASN broadcasts.
Through June 18, Fry was throwing 65% of his pitches for strikes and over 25.1 innings had struck out 36 and walked 12. After June 18, he threw only 55% of his pitches for strikes, which led to 24 strikeouts and 23 walks over 22 innings. Clearly, control had become an issue for the lefty.
This was a disastrous outcome for Fry in many ways. It’s possible it prevented him from being traded to a contender over the summer, and it will definitely impact what he gets paid if/when he reaches arbitration. But it does not necessarily mean that his career is doomed.
Clearly, there was a clamoring for the league to crackdown on the doctoring of baseballs. But doing so in the middle of a season put pitchers in a difficult spot. Many of them likely needed to re-learn effective grips on the fly, and clearly it was more difficult for some than it was for others.
Fry’s struggles were immense, and they continued with him at Triple-A, where he walked nine batters and allowed seven runs over eight innings of work. But he is going to be given an opportunity to figure things out.
He is on the team’s 40-man roster, he has options remaining, and there are several other names that would get cut before Fry. Odds are quite good that he will be in the thick of the conversation for the Opening Day roster, and he has as good a chance as anyone else to make it.
There is more reason for Valdez to panic.
His trademark changeup, which he threw nearly 75% of the time in 2021, got hammered, at least compared to the previous season. Batters slugged .487 against the offering, a drastic uptick from 2020’s mark of .233. And it wasn’t because it differed much in that time. The velocity and movement were almost identical year-over-year, and he still managed a 30.5% whiff rate. But that came with a barrel rate that more than doubled (2.6% vs. 6.7%), and a predictably inflated batting average on balls in play that went from .184 in 2020 to .380 in 2021.
It is fair to say that the “real” Valdez exists somewhere between the two versions we have seen as an Oriole. After all, his 5.87 ERA in 2021 was more than a run higher than his FIP of 4.45. But this is also a player that had disappeared from MLB for three seasons and reemerged with a fun new toy that seemed too good to be true, and it just feels like his success is more fleeting.
If teams have “figured out” Valdez’s dead fish, it’s not entirely clear what he can pivot to in order to find success. His fastball sits in the mid 80s. He’s 36 years old. Prior to joining the Orioles in 2020, he had appeared in only 20 career games. There is probably a good reason for that.
Valdez is currently on the open market after electing free agency earlier this month. Maybe the Orioles bring him back on a minor league deal in 2022, but that doesn’t appear likely. If the goal of the front office is to continue to learn about players or possibly pick up guys with the chance to flip them for something more, Valdez does not fit the brief. Hopefully he gets an opportunity somewhere in the league.
Building a bullpen is something that most teams struggle to do. Relievers are the most volatile players on a big league roster. Fry and Valdez were pretty clear examples of that. But as easily as they fall they could also be built back up. Fry will have the chance to do that in Baltimore while Valdez may need to go back into his bag of tricks to find a role elsewhere.