As a fan of a rebuilding team—man, I can’t wait for the day we can stop calling the Orioles that—you want to know that your front office can draft, develop, and sign talent. Can it?
At least judging by this Adley Rutschman fellow (the No. 2 prospect in MLB) and by that Gunnar Henderson guy (the Orioles’ No. 5), so far, so good on drafting. Plus there’s the club’s long-overdue expansion to the DR and Latin America.
As for development, if you have doubts, just look at pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall’s combined 0.56 ERA in 2021 over 16.2 innings with 31 strikeouts so far. The two were prime talents when the Dan Duquette regime drafted them, but they have exploded this season as their velocity has increased and their secondary pitches have improved. There’s John Means, too, for that matter, statistically the second- or third-best starter in baseball right now, who might not be in the majors at all if not for a changeup that pitching coach Chris Holt taught him.
Can the Orioles sign talent? So far, so good, I’d say. I think so because, for every Mike Yastrzemski (the one that got away) and for every Ty Blach (the signing that makes you go: him?), there is an Adam Plutko.
Plutko was a signing announced to Orioles fans on March 27th with whatever the opposite of fanfare is. Just four days before the season started, the club DFA’d their presumed starting second baseman in order to sign a not-young innings eater with a fastball averaging 91 mph, a career ERA of 5.05, and a strikeout rate of 6.5 that Mark Brown called “sad.” It was a head-scratcher.
At the time, Plutko, 36 of whose 50 appearances with Cleveland came as a starter, seemed destined for a spot in the rotation, possibly to replace Dean Kremer, Jorge López, or Wade LeBlanc. Instead, that fifth starter spot went to Bruce Zimmermann (for the time being, anyway), and Plutko got assigned to the bullpen.
And he’s absolutely thrived in the role. Plutko is one of the main reasons that Baltimore has MLB’s fifth-best bullpen WAR. He’s faced 79 batters this year and allowed just three runs on 13 hits and eight walks. His ERA is a career-best 1.33.
What explains Plutko’s breakout in 2021? Did the Orioles completely remake Plutko at age 29 the way they successfully did with John Means and are hoping to do still with Matt Harvey?
Shortly after arriving in town, Plutko told reporters, “They didn’t want to change a whole lot. In a good way.” All Orioles pitching coaches proposed were “slight tweaks and mixing in things a little bit differently.” The way Plutko tells it, the main difference is his role:
Familiarity breeds contempt, right? In some ways, I feel like Cleveland and I had known each other for so long that … it was almost just like, “He’s this, he’s this, he’s this.” And then I got here and it’s like we think you can be that over there. I’m like, “Wow, that’s a breath of fresh air.”
That’s not quite the whole story. (Which is fine, by the way: pitchers, like magicians, don’t like to explain their tricks.) Plutko’s peripherals and his pitch mix show some stark differences with years past that attest to the fact that Orioles coaches have done a little bit more with him than “slight tweaks.”
It’s not that Plutko has suddenly become a strikeout machine out of the bullpen. His K/9 with Baltimore remains middling, at 6.2. His average exit velocity is about where it always was, at 89.9 mph. What has changed is the quality of the contact he’s allowed.
This nifty chart from BaseballSavant illustrates the point well. In average exit velocity, Plutko clocks in around the bottom third of MLB pitchers—this means he sustains regular contact, unlike a Corbin Burnes strikeout type. But Plutko is in the top 15% of pitchers in that his hard-hit percentage, xwOBA, xERA, xSLG, and Barrel % are all quite low. In a nutshell, the contact Plutko is allowing is not the sort that produces hits.
This doesn’t mean that Plutko never gets hit hard. His HardHit% this year (31.6%) is close to his career average. What has changed for Plutko in 2021 is that the rest of the time, he’s missing the barrel of the bat.
This gets a little confusing, so here’s another illustration of the point, in the chart below. I’ve highlighted in orange bubbles Plutko stats that are notably different in 2021. The obvious ones are ERA and expected ERA. But notice, also, Barrel % (explained here) and Sweet Spot % (here). Both are halved from his normal rates. And expected average, slugging, and so forth have tumbled with them.
What seem to be driving Plutko’s results are changes in pitch usage. Since 2018, Plutko’s been throwing his fastball less and less. Since 2019, he’s thrown his cutter more and more. Don’t credit the Orioles for either trend. But they have seemingly told Plutko to use his slider more, 10.5% of the time, up from 2.7% in 2020. The Orioles knew that Plutko was no fireballer when they acquired him, but they must have liked his stuff with break. (Note that Plutko’s pitch shapes—here, under vertical and horizontal break—have barely changed.)
And the Orioles seemed to be right about Plutko’s potential efficacy, given one more peripheral that’s leapt in 2021: groundball percentage, up to 44% in 2021 (from 28% in 2020). Thank the cutter and the slider for this, neither of which batters seem to be hitting (xBA cutter: .229. xBA slider: .123).
What does all this look like in the real world? About 18% of the time Plutko faces a hitter, he strikes him out. About 16% of the time Plutko gives up a hit (only once in 2021 was this a home run). He walks him 9% of the time. The remaining 57% of the time Plutko draws contact resulting in an out. Almost half of these are harmless ground balls by batters rolling over Plutko’s pitches. Plutko has been better at doing that this season than at any other point in his career.
All of this is great news. Plutko’s signing shows that the Orioles had a clear sense that his stuff could be competitive in spite of his poor career numbers. That’s good scouting. His results thus far show that the Orioles have been good at translating those expectations into results. That’s good coaching.
Clearly, there is someone up there at 333 W. Camden Street—a few someones, presumably—with a great eye for unheralded talent. Let’s hope they dig up much more as this team starts to get competitive.