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Cole Sulser started 2021 as just another Orioles reliever and ended it as the closer

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Nothing about how Cole Sulser pitched in 2020 made him look like a future, successful high-leverage reliever. He turned himself into one anyway.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles
Cole Sulser ended the 2021 season tied for the Orioles lead in saves.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

There were 42 players who threw a pitch for the 2021 Orioles. This may be a good number for fans of Douglas Adams, but it is not a good answer for an MLB team’s pitching staff. Of those 42 players, it is a short list of three who meet these two criteria: Pitched in at least three games, and had an ERA under 4.00. It’s another illustration of how the Orioles lost 110 games. Two of these guys are starting pitchers: John Means and late-season waiver claim Chris Ellis. The third is Cole Sulser.

For anyone who registered Sulser’s presence in the 2020 Orioles bullpen, or glanced at his season stat line from last year, this revival may be something of a surprise. He only ended up in the Orioles organization when the Rays tried to sneak him through waivers early in October of 2019. Sulser had pitched 7.1 scoreless innings for the 2019 Rays, making his debut at age 29.

In 2020, Sulser was in his age 30 season. He finished with 19 appearances, a 5.56 ERA, 1.500 WHIP, and a 1-5 record. One in seven 2020 Orioles losses followed from Sulser blowing the game! His WHIP was so high because he walked 17% of batters he faced, and only struck out 19%. We have seen a lot of random waiver claim guys cycle through since Mike Elias became GM of the Orioles. Not many of them have ended up being worth remembering.

Back in January, in a routine offseason chat, Sulser told MASN’s Roch Kubatko that a big part of his 2020 struggles were rooted in something of a freak non-baseball injury. “I was ... walking by my bed and I ended up kicking my bed frame by accident, and basically the bed frame post went in between a couple toes and fractured one of my toe joints and sprained some others,” Sulser said.

I’ve been doing this for long enough that I’ve seen a number of stories where it turns out that so-and-so Oriole was secretly injured in the previous season and this is offered as an explanation for poor performance. It seems to me that a lot of the time the player just comes back the next season and sucks. I do not get my hopes up. For Sulser, I had no expectations at all and I was almost surprised he survived the whole offseason on the 40-man roster.

Whether by luck or due to genuinely believing in a coming improvement due to a healed toe, the Orioles kept Sulser around. Their reward for doing this was getting their fourth-best player by bWAR for the season, as Sulser ended up with 2.4 WAR by pitching to a 2.70 ERA over 63.1 innings. He slashed his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate each by nearly half, all while holding opposing batters to the same batting average (.205) as he did in the shortened 2020 season.

This is performance that still produces an acceptable outcome when run through the sabermetrics machine. Sulser’s Fielding Independent Pitching, the ERA analogue that tries to measure only what pitchers can control, was 2.98, while his expected ERA (xERA) was 3.15. That’s a tiny bit worse, but nothing to complain about, especially compared against Orioles relievers overall, who posted a 5.70 ERA.

It’s all the more impressive because Sulser was not treated by the team as some essential part of the Opening Day bullpen. His first appearance of the season came as the O’s led big against the Red Sox on April 4. Sulser pitched two innings and was optioned for a fresh arm the next day. He returned ten days later, pitched one inning in a doubleheader, then was optioned again. Sulser was one more disposable player on the heap.

By the end of May, Sulser had pitched in 17 games for the Orioles. The team’s record in those games was 3-14, through no fault of Sulser’s. They were bringing him in largely in games they were already losing, and went on to lose. Sulser, however, was impressive individually, bringing a 1.83 ERA and opponent OPS against of .518 into the month of June. While Sulser was pitching like this, the anointed returning closer from 2020, César Valdez, combusted, with four blown saves and a 5.03 ERA at the end of May. The Orioles noticed and made a change.

From the start of June until the end of August, there were ten Orioles games where a pitcher recorded a save. What a depressing fact! There is another one of those “This team lost 110 games” reminders. Sulser picked up the save in six of these ten games. In another two of the games with saves, Sulser had pitched in an earlier high leverage spot in the game, including as early as the fifth inning in a June 28 win over the Astros. Sulser was both the closer and an any-innings fireman type of pitcher.

With the obvious caveat that the sample sizes are all small, it is nevertheless the case that the later in the game Sulser pitched in 2021, the better his results were. Here are his stats from the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings this year:

  • 7th inning, 22 games. Batters hit: .213/.294/.377. 3.31 ERA
  • 8th inning, 22 games. Batters hit: .217/.250/.350. 2.70 ERA
  • 9th inning, 17 games. Batters hit: .160/.222/.220. 1.93 ERA

There are worse numbers for any would-be closer or late-inning high-leverage reliever to hang his hat on than these.

For all that, it’s not clear whether Sulser will even head into the 2022 season as the closer or the fireman or anything. Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells got the bulk of the save chances in September, picking up four saves before he was shut down for the season. Wells is the latest modestly successful Orioles reliever to start getting the “What if they convert him back to a starting pitcher?” treatment from O’s media.

I’m assuming Wells will stay in the bullpen until I see otherwise, so for me, it seems like a tossup as to whether Sulser or Wells would be the closer-in-waiting. Either or both could serve in more of a fireman role at different times, depending on the game situation and what kind of workload they’ve had recently. We could be in for a spring training of tea leaf reading, unless manager Brandon Hyde definitively settles the question early.

Although Sulser was drafted out of college in 2013 (25th round by Cleveland), he only played his rookie season when he was on the Orioles last year. This is significant for a rebuilding team in the sense that, while Sulser will be 32 next season, he’s not far along the service time timeline.

Assuming rules don’t change in the next CBA, Sulser won’t even be eligible for arbitration until 2023 and wouldn’t become a free agent until after the 2025 season. Year-to-year volatility is always a possibility for relievers, so there’s no guarantee Sulser will stay good for all of that time, but if he stays on his 2021 path - a big if - he could hang around for the next good Orioles team.

Previous 2021 Orioles player reviews: Valaika/Gutierrez/Mateo, Paul Fry/César Valdez, Watkins/Greene/etc., Ramón Urias, Dean Kremer, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Tyler Wells, Anthony Santander

Monday: Bruce Zimmermann