I recently posted on the Orioles subreddit about the Orioles signing Noah Syndergaard. One of the comments caught my attention. They said "his stuff is basically nothing like what the O’s look for in pitchers". That got me thinking. What are the Orioles looking for in their free agent signings? I dug into it a little bit and will be ranking the free agent pitchers available by how similar they are to the Orioles 2022 starters in terms of stuff.
My analysis will be broken up into two sections. The first section will focus on Orioles’ starters from 2022. With this, I will establish a baseline for the type of stuff the Orioles might be looking for in free agent starters. The second section will look at the free agents available and rank them based on how well they fit the model established in section one.
Disclaimer: This is not a ranking of how good a pitcher is or how much I want the Orioles to sign them. This is simply a fun exercise to try and compare free agent pitchers to other pitchers recently picked up by Elias and Company.
What is an Orioles pitcher?
I focused on Tyler Wells, Austin Voth, Spenser Watkins, and Kyle Bradish as young pitchers signed or picked up by Mike Elias in the past two years. Jordan Lyles and Dean Kremer largely fit these trends as well, so I’m not excluding them, but they were less of a focus than the other pitchers.
There were a couple of trends I saw when looking through the Statcast data for the Orioles’ main 2022 starters.
1. Pitch Mix
All of the Orioles’ starters shared a consistent pitch mix for the most part. The repertoire of all of the pitchers included a fastball, curve, changeup, and slider. There was some difference. Kremer was the only one to not feature a slider at all. Watkins and Voth also used a cutter heavily. Voth in general had the most limited pitch selection, although the spin rate on his curveball, which he used 30% of the time, makes up for his limited repertoire. This is a pretty standard pitch mix, but I figured it was worth mentioning.
2. High Spin Rates
High spin rate stands out to me as important because it was something that Elias himself emphasized when they picked Austin Voth up off of waivers earlier this year. Although the ERA was horrendous in DC, Voth featured one of the highest spin-rate curveballs in all of baseball. This trend seems consistent throughout the rest of the rotation. Across the board, Orioles’ starters have above-average spin rates on most of their pitches. Jordan Lyles is the one exception to this. His fastball and curveball were below average in terms of spin rate, but his most important non-fastball pitch—the slider—was above average.
3. Plus movement, especially on offspeed and breaking pitches
Orioles’ starters successfully combined high spin rate stuff with plus movement on their offspeed pitches. Each starter featured above-average movement on at least one non-fastball pitch. Lyles featured good vertical movement across the board, with exceptional horizontal and vertical movement on his slider. Dean Kremer featured great movement across the board, especially on his changeup and curveball. Kyle Bradish had a slider with some of the most movement in all of baseball. Tyler Wells pitches all had excellent horizontal movement, especially his curveball—along with a good moving fastball. Austin Voth’s curveball and slider featured plus movement. Finally, Spenser Watkins’ cutter and slider had some of the best horizontal movement in baseball.
4. Weak contact
What do a combination of movement and high spin rate add up to? Weak contact. Orioles’ pitchers were below average in terms of strikeouts, chase rate, and whiff%. They made up for it with their ability to induce weak contact either on the ground or in the air. This was especially noticeable with Tyler Wells who, despite being on a strict pitch count, consistently pitched into the sixth inning or later due to his ability to throw strikes and induce weak contact early in the count.
5. Low Walk Rate
Another area where Orioles’ starters proved successful was in limiting walks. The Orioles were the fourth-best team in the AL in limiting walks this season and it was a point that Chris Holt and Darren Holmes emphasized all season long. Kyle Bradish was the only starter who really struggled with walks this season. This seems to be an area of emphasis for the pitching staff, especially with the new outfield wall and less concern about short home runs to left field.
6. Flyball Rate
Finally, the Orioles succeeded in creating flyballs. The groundball rate was slightly low, with higher flyball rates. This point is one that varied the most among the starting rotation. Bradish and Watkins were slightly better at getting ground balls, while the rest of the rotation trended more towards flyballs than most of the free agents available. Despite this variation, all Orioles starters had slightly higher flyball rates than the MLB average.
How to choose free agents?
There are currently somewhere in the ballpark of 50 to 60 free agent starting pitchers set to hit the market this offseason. I didn’t feel like looking through the stats of all 50-60 free agents, so I tried to use some basic parameters to limit the pool of free agents to 15. I first removed all players with a club option that were likely to get re-uped. Sonny Gray, Aaron Nola, Luis Severino, and James Paxton were immediately gone. I also removed any player I thought would take their player option. Chris Sale and Jake Odorizzi seemed like guys who would accept the player option because of lackluster performance or injury. I assumed that guys with mutual options would be available on the market. There were also some older guys on the list who have already announced their retirement or seem to be on that bubble of retirement, including Adam Wainwright, David Price, and Rich Hill.
From there I used a very basic search of ERA, BB/9, HR/9, and K/9 to eliminate any candidates who probably would not be good enough. Any pitcher whose averages were above the 2022 Orioles rotation averages were thrown out. This removed a large portion of the free agents available. I then looked at the pitch mix and other basic stats of those free agents left. I threw out some guys like Andrew Heaney, Drew Smyly, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Anderson for being drastically off from the basic profile of the Orioles’ 2022 starters. This left me with a pool of 15 free agents. This list includes:
Ranking free agent pitchers how they fit the Orioles 2022 profile
The Top 6 (generally fit the profile closely)
1. Jameson Taillon
This was pretty surprising to see, but Taillon fits the Orioles’ profile almost to a tee. Across the board he has some of the highest spin rates of any free agent pitcher. He also had one of the best walk rates in all of baseball this season. He is above average in inducing weak contact and flyballs. The only place he slightly misses is on the movement of his pitches. His cutter and curveball have above average movement, although not quite to the same degree as any of the 2022 Baltimore starters. His barrel% and HR/9 were slightly higher, although these numbers might be mitigated slightly while pitching in Camden Yards rather than Yankee Stadium.
2. Justin Verlander
It is no surprise that a guy who went to Houston shortly after Elias’s promotion to assistant GM would fit the profile of a pitcher that Elias might look for. Like Taillon, he almost fits the profile to a tee. Verlander also had some of the highest spin rates of all the free agents on the list. Verlander is good at inducing weak contact and flyballs, and limiting walks and line drives, but he can also strike people out. The only real concern here is that Verlander is about to hit 40 and may not be a long-term option. If the goal is to compete in the next two years, then Verlander’s Cy Young-caliber stuff is certainly worth the high price.
3. Jacob DeGrom
DeGrom has some of the best stuff in all of baseball. Unlike many flamethrowers, he can also control it. DeGrom’s high spin rate pitches, flyball rate, and low walk rate all match the Orioles’ profile. Like Verlander, he can also strike guys out. The only real issue with DeGrom is that he does not induce weak contact because of his slightly-below-average movement—especially on non-fastball pitches. He may be hard to hit, but when batters do get to his pitches, they hit it pretty hard. He is certainly worth considering if the Orioles are willing to shell out a big contract to win now.
4. Carlos Rodon
Rodon has been one of the most talked about free agents who is likely due for a big contract. He fits the Orioles model pretty well, like all of the pitchers in this first group. His spin rates and movement are both average, although his slider is definitely his best pitch in terms of both categories. Rodon is an ace-caliber pitcher who is successful in both striking batters out and getting them to pop up weak flyballs. His flyball% of 29.5 is one of the highest of all the available free agents. Rodon’s biggest issues mainly come from his slightly higher walk rate—although still below league average—and his limited pitch repertoire. His younger age certainly makes him an ace candidate for years to come.
5. Chris Bassitt
Bassitt is the final pitcher to fit the Orioles’ pitching profile across the board. Bassitt may not have the highest spin rates, but he makes up for it with great movement, especially horizontal movement, on all of his offspeed and breaking pitches. This movement made Bassitt one of the better pitchers in inducing weak contact, with a weak contact% close to double the league average. Average exit velocity was also one of the best in the league. Combined with his high groundball rate, Bassitt would be a great candidate for producing large numbers of double plays. Bassitt may not be a star name on the list of free agent pitchers, but he has been an above-average pitcher in the major leagues for five straight years now.
6. Mike Clevinger
Clevinger may be another surprising name on this list. He did not have the best 2022 after coming off of Tommy John Surgery, but many of his underlying stats may make him a pitcher that the Orioles could help to take a step forward in 2023. Clevinger’s spin rates are generally above average and he has good movement on his most important pitch—his slider. Clevinger’s batted ball profile is a bit odd though. He was good at inducing weak contact and flyballs, leading to an insane flyball rate of 35%. Despite this, he also gave up a high percentage of barreled balls. A closer inspection of his game logs show that all of his worst starts this year came against the Dodgers or in Coors Field. Another year post TJ, leaving the NL West, and a better defense may all help Clevinger round the corner into an all-star caliber pitcher.
The Middle 4 (Fit the profile, but not completely)
7. Clayton Kershaw
There is no denying that Kershaw remains one of the best pitchers in baseball. Although he pitched fewer innings this year, the numbers show that Kershaw continues to bring it on the mound. Kershaw’s slider and fastball—his two most-used pitches—were some of the highest spin rates pitches among free agent pitchers. The movement does not match though, with Kershaw featuring below average movement across the board. Despite this lack of movement, Kershaw remains one of the best pitchers in limiting both hard contact and walks. It would be hard to see Kershaw in any uniform besides the Dodger blue. He might be enticed to leave if any other team were willing to offer him enough. The one-year contract from LA last year raises some concerns about how long Kershaw can keep up these numbers. It’s certainly worth the risk if it works out though.
8. Nathan Eovaldi
Eovaldi fits the Orioles’ profile in two main ways—a very low walk rate and good movement. Eovaldi’s splitter was one of the best in terms of movement in all of MLB this past season. This splitter was especially helpful in leading to a high weak contact% and a high groundball rate. Despite these numbers, Eovaldi also had one of the highest barrel percentages of all the free agents I looked at and had the highest average exit velocity. This is likely due to the overall lack of spin on Eovaldi’s pitches. It’s possible that 2022 was an outlier, as these numbers are higher than past years, but it also raises the question if Eovaldi would be a good fit for the Orioles or not.
9. Johnny Cueto
Cueto had a surprising 2022 for the White Sox. Despite lacking both good movement and spin, he was able to produce a lot of weak contact and flyballs. This seems to be due to his ability to get hitters to chase pitches out of the zone. Cueto was also successful in limiting walks. Actual results suggest that Cueto could be a great option for the Orioles. His age and the underlying data make it more of a toss-up whether he could repeat those numbers again or if 2022 was a flukey season. He could be a cheaper option for a veteran pitcher that could put up great numbers.
10. Carlos Carrasco
Like Cueto, Carrasco is a mid-30s guy who was a bit of a surprise in 2022. Carrasco featured two plus pitches in terms of movement and spin rate—his slider and curveball. Despite this, most of his batted ball statistics were right around league average. He had a slightly-above average walk rate, while all other stats like ground ball and fly ball rate, barrel%, weak contact%, and average exit velocity were right around league average. It’s unclear what type of numbers he would put up next year because of the various up-and-down seasons that Carrasco has had throughout his career.
The Final 5 (Not really that close)
11. Noah Syndergaard
Syndergaard, like Cueto, was successful in creating weak contact, despite having below average spin rates and movement. A lot of Syndergaard’s stats were right around league average, except his great walk rate. It seems that Syndergaard has learned how to pitch with his weaker stuff post-TJ, and Camden Yards plus a better defense behind him, could lead to even better results. Despite this, Syndergaard does not quite have the profile the Orioles may be looking for, and his price tag might be too high for the product being received.
12. Martin Perez
I was slightly surprised that Perez ended up so low on my list. He had a great season, but not really in a way that matches what the Orioles have looked for in other pitchers. Perez was above average in inducing weak contact, especially on the ground. His movement and spin rates were right around average. The biggest knock on Perez this year is his higher walk rate. Although right around league average, his BB/9 was by far the highest of any of the free agents, making him the only pitcher on the list to have a higher BB/9 than Orioles’ starters on average in 2022. This does not seem surprising, as Perez’s walk rates have always been slightly higher than average throughout his career. Perez was also one of the few pitchers on the list that did not really feature either a slider or curveball. These two pitches accounted for only 4% of pitches he threw this season. Although the spin rates are fine, both pitches are below average in terms of horizontal and vertical movement, explaining why he likely stayed away from them. Perez had a great season, but it was a bit of an outlier, and his pitching profile does not match what Elias and company have been looking for in other pitchers.
13. Michael Wacha
Wacha had a good 2022 for Boston, but some of the underlying numbers don’t look too great. Wacha was league average in a lot of stats, and although he limited walks, he gave up a pretty good amount of hard contact. Wacha’s high barrel% and line drive% both raise questions about the sustainability of his low ERA for next year. His expected ERA was almost a full point about his good 3.32 ERA. Wacha largely has low spin rates and average or below-average movement on all of his pitches, except for his cutter. Overall, he looks like a pitcher due for regression who does not fit the model of the Orioles’ starting rotation from this year.
14. Ross Stripling
Stripling is another guy who had a great 2022 out of the blue. Although he has had success in the past, his past few seasons did not produce the best results. Stripling largely succeeded this year thanks to his ability to limit walks and get batters to chase pitches out of the zone. Despite this, his spin rates and movement were below average. Stripling also gave up a decent amount of hard contact and had some of the highest barrel% and average exit velocity among all the free agents I looked at. He may be a decent signing if he can continue to limit walks, but that is not a guarantee.
15. Taijuan Walker
Walker is one of the bigger question marks on this list in terms of his availability. He has a player option for 2023 and has indicated his desire to stay in New York, although maybe for a higher salary. It is possible that he opts out and tries to resign for a larger salary. There is ultimately nothing that stands out about Walker in comparison to the other free agents on this list. All of his numbers are just kind of solid. He has average spin rates and most of his underlying stats are average across the board. He does have plus movement on his cutter and fastball, but that is all that really stands out. At this point, what you see is likely what you’re going to get from Walker. If he chooses to leave New York, he could be a decent middle-of-the-rotation option for pretty cheap, but he certainly does not fit the mold of the kinds of pitchers the Orioles have acquired of late.
This was just a fun little exercise to try and organize my own thoughts about some of the free agent pitchers and how they may or may not fit into the Orioles' pitching plans over the next couple of years. I left out a lot of information about contracts and some of those business-side decisions. That will obviously come into play as a lot of the higher-ranked pitchers in this list will also likely cost more. It will be interesting to see what the Orioles free agent plans look like over the next couple of months, and hopefully it is an exciting offseason for Elias and the Orioles.