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Dillon Tate had a headscratcher of a season, but the value is still there

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In 2021 Tate regressed in two main areas: strikeouts and high-leverage situations. Would a more defined role help?

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

It feels like ages ago, but do you remember that just last year Orioles fans were congratulating each other because the team had traded off a bunch of veteran relievers at the trade deadline yet still somehow managed a 3.82 bullpen ERA down the stretch?

Gone were Miguel Castro, Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier, three of the team’s best arms. But seemingly out of nowhere, the Birds were lifted by clutch performances from the likes of Hunter Harvey, Shawn Armstrong, Evan Phillips, and Dillon Tate, whose 3.24 ERA and 0.840 WHIP were of huge value to the Orioles in 2020.

You know you’re an Orioles fan when … you can look back on a fourth-place finish in a pandemic-shortened season as the golden days. But it’s true that the bullpen, far from a talent-starved wasteland, was actually a strength.

Folks expected that to continue into 2021. And it did, for about a month, as the Orioles miraculously found themselves with the fifth-best bullpen ERA (3.00) in all of baseball at the end of April. Paul Fry was a whiff machine. Travis Lakins Sr. was lockdown. César Valdez was confounding. Adam Plutko was unhittable. Tanner Scott was lethal. And Dillon Tate was appearing in high-leverage situations, walking fewer batters than he ever had, and allowing weaker-than-ever contact.

Those were the days.

Now, Dillon Tate didn’t have the calamitous fall-from-grace that some other 2021 bullpen arms endured, simply by virtue of his having stayed on the 26-man roster for basically the whole season (he missed just two weeks in May with a hamstring strain). But an 0-6 record, 4.39 ERA, and two blown saves in five tries isn’t a line that jumps out at you.

In one way, Tate is the same guy he was in 2020: his potential is “phenomenal,” as Cole Sulser said earlier this year, and he gives this team lots of versatility. Tate features an impressive four-pitch mix — sinker, slider, four-seam fastball, and changeup — and his average velocity was even in higher in 2021 than in 2020, which was already higher than in 2019. Tate also appeared in every inning between the fourth and the tenth, and about an even number of times in the sixth, seventh, eighth, and the ninth innings. This speaks to manager Brandon Hyde’s constant headscratcher of a task of finding the Orioles’ permanent closer. But it also speaks to the talented Tate’s ability to come out and pitch, whatever the situation.

But in two crucial ways, 2021 Tate was different from 2020 Tate: pitch mix and results. In 2020, Tate threw his four pitches — sinker, slider, four-seam fastball and changeup — at an almost equal distribution: 35, 26, 23, and 16 percent of the time, respectively. This year, Tate went heavy on the sinker (59%) and nearly phased out his four-seam fastball entirely (1.5%). Tate threw 615 sinking fastballs to only 16 four-seam fastballs.

Why mess with something that was working? According to this interesting conversation with Fangraphs’ David Laurila, this was by design, to draw more ground balls. Around mid-2018, while still with the Yankees, Tate says he first picked up the sinker and “started to see my groundball rate go up. It’s turned out to be pretty good movement profile-wise — it dances more than my four-seam fastball did — so it’s been a better option for me.”

This seems to make 2021’s Tate sinker revolution the culmination of a three-year trend designed to produce better ground-ball numbers. So, did it?

In a word, yes. Tate’s ground-ball percentage bounced up eight percentage points to 61.1% in 2021. He also drew lower-quality contact with the pitch, batters putting up an expected batting average 50 points lower than in 2020.

Unfortunately, Tate’s whiff rates also dropped precipitously—both on the pitch alone and more broadly: from 22.5% to 11.2% (sinker), and 21.9% to 17.1% (in general). Those aren’t great K numbers for a guy with an arm like Tate has.

There’s a tradeoff here: Tate is more deceptive with an even pitch mix, but the more he leans on the pitch, the more he’s eliciting weaker contact. Is the tradeoff worth it?

There was one another area of concern for Tate in 2021, and that was pitching in high-leverage situations. Batters’ average against him rose from .199 in low-leverage situations to .377 in high-leverage ones. With the bases empty, batters hit .239 against Tate. With the bases loaded: .625. Ouch.

It’s OK. Not everybody is cut out for the heart-pounding adrenaline junkie stuff. But it’s not a great commentary on Brandon Hyde’s usage, because he often brought out Tate to clean up Tanner Scott’s messes.

The Orioles have a talented reliever on their hands, but 2021 suggests they might want to keep him on a tighter leash. The Orioles have tested out Tate in a variety of scenarios—during the middle innings, in save situations, while up against the wall, down in a hole, or trying to nail down a win—but it might be best instead to assign those duties to someone like Cole Sulser or Tyler Wells.

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, Cole Sulser, Bruce Zimmermann, Austin Hays, Severino/Wynns

Tomorrow: Keegan Akin