It’s been chaos and commotion around him on the Orioles pitching staff, but so far, it’s been smooth sailing for Adam Plutko.
One of the new guys brought in this season, Plutko’s Baltimore debut has been pretty quiet, in all the right ways. Entering Monday, the 29-year-old and new arrival from Cleveland had three appearances for the season and an ERA of zero in 6.1 innings, having allowed three hits and one walk while striking out three.
He’s gotten off to a good start while the pitchers around him have been scuffling in the early going. Baltimore’s pitching rotation has a 5.40 ERA, and the numbers get uglier when you take out John Means’s mark of 0.77. The bullpen has run hot and cold, depending on the pitcher in question, with an ERA of 4.62.
So what should Plutko’s role in the Orioles’ pitching staff be as the season progresses?
One of the reasons Plutko must have drawn Mike Elias’s interest before signing on March 27 is his versatility. The Orioles have made no secret of their plan to use a lot of pitchers throughout the year, and Plutko’s versatility makes him a good fit for that plan. He’s pitched in 53 games in his career, and 36 appearances have been starts. He’s a round peg in a round hole however manager Brandon Hyde plans to use him.
The question is what that plan is.
His usage this season (granted, only three appearances) doesn’t tip the Orioles’ hand much. Plutko was used for 2.1 innings in the middle of a 4-2 win over Boston, but then for three innings in a 7-2 loss to the Yankees. Right after those longer appearances, he pitched just the seventh in a close, extra-inning loss to the Red Sox.
Considering Plutko’s track record, and the Orioles’ lack of stability with their starters, the plan could be to work him into the starting rotation. In 2018 and ‘19 he pitched largely (32 of 38 appearances) as a starter, and the Orioles could have an opening soon. Means and Dean Kremer are locks for the rotation, as is Matt Harvey as long as he’s with the club, but Bruce Zimmermann (4.50 ERA) and Jorge Lopez (11.42) are less set in stone.
Zimmermann probably has a longer leash, given his solid start to open the year and impressive spring training, but Lopez was on the bubble to make the team in the first place coming out of Florida. If Lopez continues to struggle or if Zimmermann quickly shows that his spring was a hot few weeks and nothing more, and if Plutko continues to impress in the relief innings he gets, manager Brandon Hyde would probably start thinking he has a better plan in his back pocket.
The counter to this thinking is that Plutko over his career has fared better out of the bullpen. As a starter, he’s 12-12 with a 5.10 ERA. As a reliever, in 35 innings, he has a 3.86 ERA.
And the bullpen could be where he’s needed most. While pitchers like Tanner Scott, Paul Fry and Cesar Valdez have picked up where they left off last year, the O’s are wobblier with their other options. Shawn Armstrong’s 27.00 ERA tells the story of a pitcher who’s been welcomed by batters’ barrels this season. Mac Sceroler’s struggled, Wade LeBlanc’s struggled, Dillon Tate hasn’t been dialed in. There are some question marks.
In the bullpen, Plutko can be Hyde’s jack of all trades. He can pitch long relief and make spot starts, and give Hyde an ideal option to share the early pitching load in bullpen games. That, or the Orioles may need him more as a late-inning setup arm, and as a stopgap provided Armstrong and Tate end up needing time to snap themselves back into form.
Plutko’s career suggests he could be a fit if the Orioles need someone else in the mix of finishing up games. According to Baseball Reference’s criteria of leverage situations, Plutko’s .250 batting average and .741 OPS against in high leverage situations beat his numbers in medium (.271/.834) or low (.263/.827) leverage.
The downside is using Plutko that way would give Hyde one less reliable long relief arm — assuming his performance remains strong — and those aren’t easy to find.
What it boils down to, though, is a good problem to have. Like two good quarterbacks or two good leadoff hitters, having a pitcher you need to find a spot for is a good spot to be in, and it certainly beats the opposite of having more demand than supply.
For now, Plutko just needs to keep it up when his number is called. Whenever that happens to be.