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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Félix Bautista

One of the newest members of the Orioles 40-man roster played three minor league levels last year and struck out nearly 40% of batters he faced. Whoa!

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
We don’t have access to any photos of Felix Bautista, so enjoy The Oriole Bird instead.

This article is the first in a series. Know Your Orioles 40-man will feature an article about each of the 38 players currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.

When the Orioles added six prospects to the 40-man roster at last November’s deadline to protect them from the still-delayed Rule 5 draft, most of them were familiar names for an O’s prospect watcher. One of the surprising additions was a 26-year-old reliever who, entering the 2021 season, had never pitched above Delmarva. That doesn’t sound like anyone the team would have needed to worry about being exposed to the draft. Félix Bautista found his way onto the roster anyway.

For Bautista, it was a long professional journey that eventually led him here. He was originally signed by the Marlins as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic in the 2012-13 signing period. Miami released him early in 2015 without ever giving him a look at a level higher than the Dominican Summer League. More than a year later, he signed with the Orioles and spent parts of two more seasons in the DSL.

Bautista was still kicking around the Orioles minors when Mike Elias and company took over. The 2019 minor league season finally got Bautista above the rookie level. This was his age 24 season. Bautista pitched 26 games, mostly for Low-A Delmarva, issuing 23 walks in 36.2 innings. That’s just not going to get a guy on any prospect radar. With the pandemic wiping out the 2020 minor league season, Bautista did not get any more chances to prove himself until this past season.

At age 26, Bautista at last began to rise. The Orioles assigned him to High-A Aberdeen to start the season. After Bautista struck out 45.2% of batters he faced in 15 innings, the team bumped him up to Double-A Bowie, where he continued that pattern, striking out 42.1% of those he faced. That’s just laying waste to the competition. One more bump saw him at Norfolk at season’s end, where the strikeout rate remained impressive if not as eye-popping. Bautista sent down one-third of all Triple-A batters he faced on strikes.

The numbers in the previous paragraph sound even more impressive because I left out the catch. Bautista may have posted a phenomenal 14.9 K/9 for the season, but it comes along with an unsightly walk rate. He issued 30 free passes in 46.2 innings. Thinking about that hurts me.

On top of the standard small sample size caveat for Bautista’s strikeout rate at each of these levels, there’s also the fact that he is old for a prospect. We can’t say much about his quality when he was racking up these gaudy numbers for Aberdeen and Bowie against players three, four, or even five years younger than he is.

MASN’s Steve Melewski described Bautista as having “an electric arm with a fastball that has touched 100 and 101 mph and a slider in the low 90s.” The appeal of that kind of player is immediately obvious. If they can just shave a little bit off of that walk rate while having stuff that’s borderline-unhittable, the team can live with that, right?

My philosophy about ridiculously wild pitching prospects is that they’re probably not going to stop being wild. Maybe I’m letting recent experience watching Tanner Scott cloud my judgment. Scott’s minor league BB/9 was 5.9, just about the same as Bautista’s 5.8 BB/9 for 2021.

Scott’s now pitched for most of four MLB seasons and he has never been able to manage the “shave the walk rate a little bit” except for the two-month 2020 campaign. His stuff hasn’t been unhittable as long as he’s been that wild facing major leaguers, either. Scott’s allowed 8.4 hits per nine innings as a big league pitcher.

Combine that with his walk rate and you get a career WHIP of 1.575. In terms of keeping batters from reaching base, Scott was one of MLB’s worst pitchers last season, as he will be every season unless he substantially improves his ability to utilize his arsenal. Indulge me this sad digression: There were seven Orioles pitchers who threw at least 40 innings last season and had a higher WHIP than Scott’s. That doesn’t make Scott better, but it does explain the team losing 110 games.

The Orioles clearly think there’s enough of a chance to keep polishing Bautista in hopes of his being a late bloomer that it’s better to have him on the 40-man roster rather than exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Even if there’s only a 10% chance of Bautista getting down to something like a 4.5 BB/9 while keeping a 12+ K/9, we wouldn’t want another organization getting the chance to cash in on those long odds for 2022.

Since the Orioles bullpen posted an MLB-worst 5.70 ERA last season, it is not hard to see how Bautista might be able to cash in on the opportunity presented by being on the 40-man roster. He is old for a prospect and “only” a reliever, meaning the team might not worry too much about having him ride the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle when there’s a short-term need for a game or two at most. If Bautista is able to pitch very well for Norfolk and if returning Orioles relievers falter or are injured, Bautista might even get a longer look.

Connected to having a league-worst bullpen ERA, the team also had one of the worst strikeout rates among relievers in the league. O’s bullpen guys struck out 21.5% of batters they faced in 2021, the third-lowest percentage of any team. A middle-of-the-pack number would be closer to 24%. The MLB-best Brewers bullpen struck out 28.1% of batters faced. Bautista could certainly help with this if he and the team are fortunate and he can cobble together some success by maintaining an elite strikeout rate while not being quite as wild.

End-of-year prediction: Each player’s article writer will guess whether the player will end the season on the MLB team, in the Orioles minors, or out of the organization.

I think that Félix Bautista will end the season in the minors. We’ll probably see him for more than one MLB stint, but I still can’t get over the basic philosophy of “wild guy is going to stay wild.” It seems like he’ll end up being one more guy who gets churned through who fans aren’t going to miss when he departs. I’ll be glad if Bautista proves me wrong and ends up striking out a third of batters he faces for the next good Orioles team.

Tomorrow: Logan Gillaspie