They’re fun, those random moments when you feel like you’re smarter than everybody than else. So if you, personally, are the person who tipped off the Baltimore Orioles that they should claim Bryan Baker when the Blue Jays waived him last November, well, hats off. That was clever.
(Especially because, with a better bullpen, Toronto might have done slightly better in the playoffs than [checks notes] zero wins. But I digress. . .)
When the Orioles picked Baker up off waivers last November, he seemed like the longest of long shots to stick on this roster. An eleventh-round pick for the Rockies in 2016, Baker spent five years in the Colorado/Toronto farm systems. His career minors numbers were “just aite” in most categories, except one: 10.3 strikeouts per game. Mike Elias definitely has a type.
As ordinary as Baker’s career numbers as a minor leaguer were, he intriguingly managed to improve on them during his 2022 season. I don’t know if that’s rare, but it seems like it should be.
Minors (five seasons): 174 G, 3.18 ERA, 1.301 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 4.2 BB/9
2022 MLB season: 66 G, 3.49 ERA, 1.234 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9
Baker came out of nowhere this season. A surprise inclusion on the 25-man roster out of spring training, Baker started the year in a funk. Through April, he had a 6.14 ERA, and it remained north of 6 in May. His WHIP that month was an ugly 1.89, and his opponent average against .327. He became hit-prone in general, with a high average exit velocity. At this point in the season, Baker’s name was one of the most frequently called out by fans who wanted to see heads roll.
Toronto—I mean, Orioles fans? I mean, Baker was solid for the rest of the year. His monthly ERA splits were as follows: 3.09 (June), 2.45 (July), 4.50 (August), and a sizzling 1.10 in 14 games in September/October. August was a step back, but his five runs allowed coincided with two appearances against the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays can hit, and it was just two lousy outings, so maybe you can write that off a bit.
What was the difference between Bad Baker (May/August) and Good Baker (June, July, September)? A couple things:
1. Bad luck - Opponents’ BABIP in August was .346 and Baker’s K/9 that month was an excellent 11.7. This does makes August seem like a blip.
2. Changeup – Over the season, we saw on a bunch of occasions that Orioles coaches are fiddling with pitcher arsenals. They did this with Baker, too, introducing a brand-new changeup that ended up being his best pitch this season. Here are the monthly pitch percentages (note that May was a low in changeup usage).
According to BaseballSavant, Baker didn’t throw a changeup in 2021, and in the first two months of the 2022 season, he used it infrequently (between 8-12%). Starting in June, Baker’s changeup usage leapt up and hovered around 20% for the rest of the year. It became a game changer for him: in August/September, Baker threw 85 changeups and batters actually hit .000 against it.
3. Heater – I don’t know how, but quietly, all of Baker’s stuff got better over the year, especially his fastball. The heater averaged 96.2 mph on the season, but it actually averaged just 93.3 mph in the month of April before the velo kept ticking up to an average of 97.3 mph in September. A 4 mph increase over the season? Was it technique, strength or conditioning? I don’t know, but it was an impressive leap for Baker.
OK, now let’s pump the brakes for a second. A 3.49 ERA, 1.2 WAR, and 115 ERA+ over 69 innings on the season: those are nice numbers, not great. Baker did not explode like a Félix Bautista or a Cionel Pérez. His average exit velocity was pretty high, due to his allowing a lot of hard hits. His chase rate is bottom 5%. And he walks too many people. So there’s clear room for improvement.
But—to put things back in focus—when this season began Baker was an unknown, untested reliever with one career inning of work. This season was basically just an audition for him, and he ended up becoming Mr. Reliable for his manager Brandon Hyde, not missing a single day with injury, and getting better and better down the stretch.
For that matter, coming into the 2022 season, the Orioles were fresh off a league-worst 5.70 bullpen ERA the year before. They weren’t expected to compete, and were looking for cheap, effective relief help where they could find it. By that measure, both the Orioles and Bryan Baker passed with flying colors.
Part of the reason that the Orioles were able to improve on last year’s ERA by, like, two whole runs and make a run at the postseason deep into September were out-of-nowhere successes like Bryan Baker. He’ll be back in the bullpen next year, having earned that chance.
Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Jordan Lyles
Monday: Tyler Wells