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Paul Fry’s season slippage a stunning storyline for Orioles

Once looking like one of the best relievers in baseball, Fry began struggling in June and hasn’t been able to kick it, and is off the major league roster as a result.

MLB: AUG 20 Braves at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Orioles have done plenty of personnel swapping recently, with fringe big leaguers constantly being sent up and down from Baltimore to the minor league affiliates, but one name stood out in the recent transactions.

On Sunday, Paul Fry got word that he was being sent down to Triple-A Norfolk after an ineffective outing in the series and season finale against the Tampa Bay Rays.

That Fry’s season could come to this, after the way it started, is nothing short of staggering.

The move is warranted. Fry now stands at 4-5 with a 6.08 ERA and a 1.521 WHIP. He was no longer someone that the Orioles could trust in any late-game situation.

The weird part is that, for more than two months, Fry looked like the second coming of 2014 Andrew Miller.

On June 18, Fry pitched a scoreless inning against the Blue Jays, striking out one and allowing one hit. At that point, his ERA over 26 appearances was 1.78, his batting average against was .172, and his WHIP was 1.078. He was chewing hitters up, with 36 strikeouts across 25.1 innings. He was one of the most trustworthy arms in the whole game, not just the team or the AL East.

Then the next night, Fry allowed four runs in two-thirds of an inning. Nothing’s been the same since. His ERA since then, over 27 appearances, is 10.57. The average against him is .253. He’s fanned only 25 in 23 innings, and his command has deserted him. He’s walked 23 in 23 innings, and his WHIP of 2.0 on the dot is just...well, it’s bad.

And for a pitcher who looked the way Fry did, it’s bewildering. It’s one of the most abrupt disappearing acts we’ve seen on this team in years, a pitcher going from potential All-Star to off the roster in a matter of months.

Adding to the surprise of the sharp downward turn is that this hasn’t been the tale of a minor leaguer who finally got the call up, benefitted from major league hitters’ inexperience in facing him, and then came back to earth once he began facing hitters for the third, fourth and fifth times. Fry has been solid for the Orioles since arriving in 2017, notching a 3.35 ERA in 2018 and then a 2.45 figure last season. It made sense that the 29-year-old had just taken a step forward.

That narrative’s not in effect anymore. Fry hasn’t been a disaster every time out, but with two or more runs allowed in six of his last 10 appearances, it had become clear that the swoon wasn’t ending any time soon.

It didn’t take much research to find the causes behind Fry’s sensational first two and a half months. On June 8, Fry was acing nearly every metric. He was in the 88th percentile in all of baseball in hard-hit percentage, he was in the 97th percentile in expected slugging percentage, and he was in the 96th percentile in strikeouts per nine.

Now? That hard-hit percentage is down 10 points to the 78th percentile. The strikeouts per nine rate fell from the 96th percentile to 75th. The most damning metric, however, is that lack of command. Fry to this point has walked 16.3 percent of batters. That’s in the 1 percentile — or, in other words, 99 percent of pitchers in the major leagues are better at avoiding walks than Fry has been.

Wildness was the one flaw in Fry’s makeup even when he was on top of his game. But a blemish grew into a crippling defect, one that he became less and less able to survive.

Even when Fry has been able to keep the pitches in the zone, his strikes haven’t helped him out. Using June 18 as a dividing line again, his fastballs have gone from being hit hard 25 percent of the time to 39 percent, and his strikeout percentage has gone from 28 to 20.

His offspeed pitches, however, have been night and day. In his first 26 outings, Fry held hitters to a .098 average with those pitches. Since that point, it’s been .262. The expected average has climbed from .141 to .254. The strikeout rate has fallen from 44 percent to 23 , and the hard-hit percentage is up from 30 to 40.

This all from someone who, in early July, was thought to be an in-demand trade chip for the deadline.

Given the timing of his nosedive and the stark contrast in the effectiveness of his pitches before and after, it’s hard for anyone trying to get to the root of the problem to not draw a line to the adhesive substances ban. MLB’s cracking down on the sticky stuff pitchers were using to get more spin for faster fastballs and sharper sliders and curveballs promised to cut down on strikeout rates, which would explain entirely what happened to Fry’s ability to throw those pitches effectively.

He was striking out batters at a higher rate and allowing hits at a lower one than he ever had, and now the opposite is true. Only he and the team know what he was and wasn’t using, but the numbers don’t paint an encouraging picture.

There are, however, some silver linings considering Fry’s future with the team. He’s eligible for arbitration after this season, and had he kept up his performance from the first two months, his number may have climbed to a point that the Orioles didn’t feel comfortable reaching. As it is, they’ll likely be able to bring him back for a low price, and go into the season hoping for a return to form from a pitcher with a track record of success.

Another bright side is that Fry’s struggles have been due to one club above all others. As the Baltimore Sun reported, Fry has been particularly wretched against the Tampa Bay Rays, pitching to an absurd 34.71 ERA against the AL East leaders and a 2.98 ERA against everyone else. That does back up the notion that Fry could have less to figure out this offseason than his second-half bottoming out suggests he would its own.

But there’s no question, Fry’s last couple of months have dashed almost all of those good feelings, and made the Orioles’ top pitcher a question mark going in. The 2021 season couldn’t have started better for Fry. Now, he’s struggling through the worst way it could have ended.