While seemingly everyone in the Baltimore Orioles bullpen went south the last couple of weeks, Paul Fry managed to avoid the bug.
Tanner Scott saw his numbers take a rough turn, as did Adam Plutko and Travis Lakins. Cole Sulser struggled for a bit, and Cesar Valdez hit a wall.
Fry, meanwhile, remained as steady as he’s been since he arrived. His ERA hasn’t been above 3 since April 11. While the bullpen fire around him crackled and occasionally raged, Fry allowed runs in only two May outings. One, an ugly game against Tampa Bay, raised his ERA from 1.17 to 2.81. Since then, he’s worked it back under 2 at 1.99.
With Valdez getting hit on a nightly basis, he lost his closing gig, and manager Brandon Hyde gave it to someone he could trust. Fry got the job, and he’s been at it the last week or so, finishing the game on three of his last four appearances after finishing none since April 11. He’s earned a save and pitched 4.2 innings while allowing three hits, two walks and striking out seven.
The idea worked. Hyde and the Orioles got some dependability in those high-leverage situations.
Now the question: Is this a “for now” plan, a solution to stop the bleeding with the idea that Valdez or perhaps Hunter Harvey will at some point regain that responsibility? Or is there some permanence to the idea that when a win needs to be nailed down, Fry will get the call?
It’s becoming something of a story around the league. Our teammates over at SB Nation’s fantasy neck of the woods seem to think there’s some lasting effect to Fry’s new role, and there’s reason to like the idea. Fry doesn’t throw as hard as many closers do, with an average fastball speed of 93.5 miles per hour, but he checks all the other boxes. The two best qualities a closer can have are the ability to limit baserunners and the propensity to keep the ball in play, and Fry’s season has been all about that.
While Fry’s walk-per-nine ratio is a less-than-stellar 4.0, he counteracts that with a .179 batting average against that has led him to a 1.059 WHIP. In terms of hard-hit percentage, he’s in the 88th percentile in the game, according to his previously-linked Baseball Savant page. His expected slugging percentage against is in the 97th percentile, and his strikeout rate — 33 in 22.2 innings — puts him in the 96th percentile.
When hitters do make contact against him, they’re hitting the ball on the ground 57.9 percent of the time, and only hitting fly balls — this excludes line drives and pop-ups — at a 14.1 percent rate.
It’s hard to come up with an explanation for why that profile — a strikeout pitcher who is hit primarily on the ground, and not that hard — doesn’t match up perfectly with the closer job, where you’re often dealing with teams selling out to score one run and helping out the opponent, either with walks or with extra bases for their hits, is even more costly.
Fry is a good choice for the closer job for the same reason Zack Britton was. He doesn’t have Britton’s repertoire, with the high-90s heat and heavy sinker, but Fry strikes batters out and stays out of trouble. That was Britton’s calling card; in order to rally and score against him, you had to go station to station. You weren’t going to get all the work done in one swing with a home run. Fry, who has faced 90 batters this year and not allowed a home run, gets the same results.
Fry’s been a major contributor to the Orioles for four years now, but he’s currently pitching at a level he hasn’t been at before. His ERA is nearly half a run better than it was last year (2.45, his previous best), his 1.059 WHIP (previous best, 1.274 in 2018) is the best it’s been, his strikeout rate is up, and his batting average against is 57 points better than at any other point in his career. He didn’t fit the closer role before, but the Paul Fry that has shown up in 2021 could pitch anywhere, at any time.
The reason why Fry might not be the best pick for the role? He’s so valuable in other spots. He’s pitched 14.1 combined seventh or eighth innings, and has a 2.51 ERA and .128 batting average against in those frames. He’s Hyde’s go-to pitcher to get out of jams. If Hyde feels he has different pitchers he can turn to for the closer duties, he could consider going with Fry to just be opening up a sizeable hole earlier in the game. He does his normal job so well, why mix it up?
Plus, there’s no guarantee that a pitcher will take to closing the way he has to set-up. Some, like Britton, found their niche right away. Others stayed in those bridge innings and became true weapons for their team. Think what Andrew Miller was here and in Cleveland. He pitched well as the Yankees’ closer, but as Terry Francona’s top high-leverage arm leading to Cody Allen in the ninth, he was a force.
For now, it’s hard to argue with the results. Fry’s brought stability to the eighth and ninth innings that had disappeared. The O’s have turned a corner ever since. Now it just remains to be seen how long the team wants to stick with the situation.