For being only 60 games, and 19 appearances, in length, Cole Sulser’s 2020 season seemed to go a multitude of directions.
At times, Sulser looked like a real find for the Orioles, a pitcher who was hard to hit with a knack for high-leverage and closing situations. And then, at others, Sulser looked like the latest below-average reliever being trotted out by a bad team, walking batters left and right and coughing up one lead after another.
The results were dim. Sulser went 1-5 with a 5.56 ERA, and three blown saves in eight opportunities. But as the team gets the first workouts of the 2021 season underway in Sarasota, Sulser is still with the club, still looking to be an asset.
And he can be. But the key is shorter nights, which is something Sulser can help himself with via better control. Fewer walks equal fewer baserunners against a pitcher who was surprisingly hard to hit given the ERA he finished with, which equals quicker innings.
But it’s also something the team and manager Brandon Hyde can help him with, by not going back to the well the way they did last season.
Of Sulser’s 19 appearances last year, nine saw Hyde try to use him in two innings (note, this doesn’t mean two statistical innings pitched. This means he had him pitch in two different innings). The results saw Sulser’s effectiveness plummet during the second trip out. In the first inning in which he was called in, Sulser gave up eight hits in 54 at-bats, a .143 batting average. His opposing on-base percentage was .284, and he gave up seven earned runs in 16.3 innings for a 3.86 ERA.
In the second inning, Sulser ran into problems. Opponents went 9-for-27 against him for a .333 average, and his on-base percentage against was a whopping .455. Unsurprisingly, his ERA (10.50) ballooned as well.
So why did Hyde keep trying to lean on the righthander for four, five or even six outs? It’s hard to completely blame him; at first, it was working. Sulser’s first three multi-inning efforts went smoothly, as he had two 1-2-3 innings and allowed only a single the other time. On Aug. 15, went he set the Nationals down in order in the ninth for his fifth save after also getting the last out of the eighth, he had a gaudy 4.37 ERA, but he had also not allowed a run in nine of the 11 innings in which he pitched.
Afterward, Sulser’s high-wire act of walking batters and then trying to escape jams caught up with him. After that save against Washington, five of his six remaining multi-inning efforts resulted in runs allowed in that second inning. Granted, three were in the 10th, which last year began with a runner on second base, but those weren’t charged as earned runs. Sulser’s stats were ugly on their own.
So what does this mean? It suggests that, by limiting Sulser to one inning at a time, the Orioles can harness the good that the 30-year-old brought to the team last year. Sulser finished the season with a respectable .210 opponent’s average, and was a little under a strikeout per inning with 19 punchouts in 22.2 innings.
Like his overall stats, those metrics dipped as well as the season progressed. On Aug. 22, after he made his 10th appearance of the season, Sulser was allowing a .116 average and a .469 OPS, and had 13 strikeouts in 13 innings. He fanned six over the final 9.2 innings, and was batted around to the tune of a .316 average and .975 OPS.
The success he did have, however, is encouraging for an Orioles team that has little in terms of rotation depth, and will instead be looking to get everything it can out of a bullpen that could be pretty decent. If Sulser can cut down on the free passes, he can be a help on a team that could be going to the ’pen early and often.
The other thing that would help is if the Orioles don’t ask for too much, which given that Sulser lost his closer job last year and is unlikely to get it back this season, likely takes care of that possibility. It opens up the option for Baltimore to use him more situationally as opposed to giving him his own inning. Given that he held lefties to a .143 average last season, that might be the role in which he shines most.
Whatever his duties are, assuming he’s on the team once spring training is done, less is more. It’s a lesson the Orioles learned the hard way last season.