There haven’t been many good stories surrounding the Orioles since the franchise crashed in 2018. But the bullpen this season has been one of them.
Tanner Scott is one of the most lethal arms in the game. No one knows how Cesar Valdez gets the job done in the closer spot, but he does. Adam Plutko has been a gift. Paul Fry has been as steady as they get.
And let’s not forget Dillon Tate. It took a while for him to arrive, but all indications are that the 27-year-old has.
Tate hasn’t put up the kind of blow-you-away numbers that relievers like Josh Hader in Milwaukee and Matt Barnes in Boston have, but he’s clearly become an asset in that bullpen - one that, with Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann and Jorge Lopez struggling from the get-go, has had to be great in order for the Orioles to flirt with .500. He’s pitched 11.2 innings in 10 games (entering Monday), and despite striking out only six batters he’s compiled a 3.09 ERA and 0.857 WHIP.
Tate is answering any doubters that needed to see his 2020 breakthrough wasn’t a fluke. Last season, he pitched 16.2 innings in 12 appearances and pitched to a 3.24 ERA with a 0.840 WHIP. His numbers this year have been right in line with last year’s, and some - such as a walk percentage that’s gone down from 7.8 percent to 4.7 - have been even better.
It hasn’t been an easy path to this point for Tate. He was drafted fourth overall in 2015, ahead of players like Andrew Benintendi, Trent Grisham and Walker Buehler, but while some of his fellow draftmates found prominence early, Tate’s progression was slower. He didn’t make it into the majors until 2019, and that first season in the bigs (21 innings in 16 appearances, 1.286 WHIP, 6.43 ERA) suggested he had a lot more work to do, and that the promise the Orioles were banking on when they acquired him in the Zack Britton trade was maybe not all there.
One season later, the narrative had changed, and two years later, Tate has become an important weapon at manager Brandon Hyde’s disposal.
It’s just unclear how Hyde plans to use him going forward.
While some pitchers, like Valdez and Scott, have been earmarked for specific situations, Tate has had an undefined role out of the pen. He’s appeared in every inning between the fourth and the 10th except the ninth. He’s been called upon to finish games, like he did against the Marlins on April 21 and the Athletics on May 1, he’s been called upon for holds, and he’s been called for middle relief. He’s even been called for long relief, as was the case April 27 when he pitched 2.2 innings against the Yankees, marking his longest showing since the fourth appearance of his career in 2019.
Hyde is either making the most of Tate’s versatility, or looking for the ideal situation for him. While that’s up in the air, what is not is the value that Tate has provided him.
While the strikeout numbers are low for someone of Tate’s repertoire, which includes a mid-90s, hard-moving sinker, the other metrics are impressive. According to MLB.com’s Baseball Savant, Tate measures in the top 20 percentile in both average exit velocity and walk rate. That aforementioned sinker has gone from being a pitch he throws 35 percent of the time to 53.8, and hitters have gone from hitting .278 against it last year to .222 this year. They may not be missing it, but they’re not hitting it hard, either (Ramon Laureano being the exception).
The Orioles have noticed how Tate’s come along; Cole Sulser, another Baltimore reliever who’s enjoyed 2021 so far, said Tate’s “potential is phenomenal.” The Orioles haven’t pitched Tate too often with the task of nailing down wins, preferring instead to assign those duties to Scott and Fry, but that seems to be a competitive depth chart at work more than a lack of trust. Tate has done his part to earn that job, but Scott and Fry have done their part as well to keep it. No need to fix what isn’t broken.
So how Tate helps the Orioles varies; what doesn’t is that he helps them when he does get the ball, whether he’s being asked to hang on to a lead or finish off a blowout. Going into 2020, it was fair to question if Tate was going to become the bullpen asset the front office hoped it was getting in that 2018 trade. Now, in May of 2021, it’s clear that he’s a big reason the bullpen is the strength it has become.