Early in the abbreviated 2020 season, the Orioles attempted to make 30-year-old rookie Cole Sulser their closer based on little more than a hunch that he could do the job. It did not go particularly well, as he struggled with control and experienced a stretch in August in which he blew just as many saves as he completed. Nearly a year later, Sulser is no longer the closer, but he has turned into one of the most reliable arms in a deep Orioles bullpen.
It wasn’t always clear Sulser was going to be trusted with important innings for Brandon Hyde’s team ever again. After all, with two Rule 5 picks in tow, the Orioles bullpen is pretty full. They need the non-rookie members to be dependable. So it wasn’t too surprising that Sulser was one of the first players of the season to be optioned to the alternate site.
Who could blame them for such a decision? Sulser had struggled during his rookie season in 2020, walking (6.75 BB/9) and striking out batters (7.54 K/9) at a similar rate. The last thing the Orioles could afford was a relief pitcher getting them into jams they would be hard-pressed to find a way out of. So, even though he had struck out three Red Sox hitters in just two innings of work during his first appearance of the season, the move made sense at the time.
Looking back, however, those types of outings have become the norm for Sulser so far in 2021. Over 12.2 total innings of work, Sulser has racked up 20 strikeouts and walked just one batter. His batting average against on the season is .196 and his ERA is a measly 1.42. Simply put, the Dartmouth grad is dominating and appears to be the polar opposite of the wild thrower from last summer.
It doesn’t look like Sulser has completely overhauled his pitch repertoire or anything. He still throws a fastball, slider, and changeup, although he does now mix in a curveball on occasion. But the changeup has a new look.
Sulser has reduced the velocity on the offering by almost 2.5 miles per hour and added more than six inches of vertical drop to it. The result has been domination. His changeup now has a 44.1% whiff rate and a batting average against of .063. What’s helped has been the righty’s ability to locate the pitch down in the zone. In 2020 he would nibble around the edges more.
Of course, such a good changeup tends to function best when set up by an effective fastball. Wouldn’t ya know it, that’s exactly what Sulser has done so far this season.
The characteristics of the fastball are similar to what they were in 2020. Sulser has dropped a little velocity and a bit of movement, but it’s not dramatic, and the pitch’s spin rate is almost identical. The most important alteration has happened in Sulser’s favor. The 31-year-old is now throwing the pitch exactly where he wants it: up in the zone.
Not to be redundant, but his pitch chart from one season to the next is a night-and-day different.
Peppering the top of the zone is a strategy that makes sense for a fastball like Sulser’s. It has middling velocity but good spin. The fact that he pairs it with a really good change-up that hitters are prone to chase down in the zone makes it even better.
Sulser’s fastball is not the most remarkable offering of its kind. Its expected batting average against is .254 while its expected slugging percentage is .608. But if he is able to keep it out of the middle of the plate it can still be effective.
Something else that’s worth mentioning yet only came to light during this past offseason was that Sulser actually hurt his foot at some point last year while walking around his apartment. This was no stubbed toe either. Sulser said that he fractured and sprained multiple toes on his right foot by accidentally walking into his bed frame.
Who’s to say what factors were at work to cause Sulser such severe trouble on the mound last year, but it’s safe to say that a fractured foot didn’t help matters. Now that he’s all healed up, he looks like a new pitcher.
With all of that said, we should prepare for some regression on Sulser’s part. His 0.71 BB/9 walk rate probably won’t last forever, although he should still be significantly better than the control problems he suffered a season ago. On that same note, a 14.21 K/9 feels unsustainable as well, but he is good enough to be striking out somewhere around 10-11 batters per nine innings, as he did throughout his minor league career.
Even if his sky-high numbers do come back to earth a bit, Sulser still has the looks of a useful, high-leverage type of reliever for the Orioles. He avoids hard contact, changes the eye levels of hitters and has the ability to go multiple innings. He will need to prove he can continue to produce, but it sure look like the club may have found itself a bargain, having claimed him off of waivers from a division rival, the Rays, prior to last season.