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Felix Bautista’s 2022 put him on track to be the Orioles’ next great closer

The Mountain often came up as big as his stature in a rookie season that saw him become one of the best relievers in baseball.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Almost anywhere you look, Felix Bautista is “officially” listed at 6’5”, 190lbs. Yet, every time he stepped on the field this season for the Orioles, his stature and the heights of his pitching prowess only proved to be larger and larger.

In a season full of surprises for Baltimore’s favorite Birds, none were bigger than Bautista—both literally and metaphorically. The man now known as The Mountain came to the Orioles in relative anonymity. Bautista signed with the Marlins out of the Dominican Republic as a 17-year-old in 2012, only to be released outright three years later. He signed a minor league contract with the Orioles in 2016 and proceeded to bounce around between rookie and A ball for three seasons. Then, after he posted a K/9 ratio of almost 15 across three levels in 2021, the Orioles gave Bautista a role in the bullpen to start 2022.

When the 27-year-old made his major league debut in the Orioles’ first game of the season against Tampa Bay, there were barely any signs of what was to come. The towering, flame-throwing righty seemed like just another unknown reliever tasked with putting out the dumpster fire that had been the Orioles’ bullpen. In his first 1.1 innings of major-league work, Bautista struck out two—throwing mostly fastballs and sliders, with his heater topping out around 98.

What proceeded from there was perhaps the most improbable rise to prominence of any Orioles reliever in recent memory. More improbable than Zack Britton rising from the ashes of being a failed starter to the most dominant reliever in the league. More improbable than Gregg Olson bursting into the majors in 1989 to become the first relief pitcher to win AL Rookie of the Year.

After starting the season featuring mostly in the sixth and seventh innings, Bautista locked down a role as the primary setup man to Jorge Lopez midway through May. From that point until Lopez was traded at the beginning of August, Bautista went on an absolute tear. Over 31 innings between May 10th and July 31st, The Mountain only allowed five runs while striking out 41 hitters and holding opponents to a .144 average.

At that point, Bautista had started to hone in on his now signature pitching repertoire. By the end of the season, Bautista was as well known for his devastating splitter as for his electrifying fastball. It didn’t start out that way, though, as through the first month of the season Bautista was throwing the splitter only 14% of the time. That number jumped up to 25% by the end of June and would only continue to grow as Bautista’s role grew. By the end of the year, The Mountain possessed the most insurmountable splitter of any reliever in the MLB.

Bautista’s fastball also seemed to grow with his confidence. A heater that started out averaging just above 97 mph ended the season averaging 100 mph while regularly sitting at 102. This one-two-punch of Bautista’s fastball and splitter became such a devastating combo that it was understandable when the Orioles traded Lopez at the deadline. While Lopez had been really good, it seemed like Bautista had a shot at true dominance and deserved the opportunity to test that dominance in the closer’s role.

When Bautista finally got that chance in the last two months of the season, he certainly ran with it. Over his final 22.1 innings of work, Bautista converted 12 of 13 save attempts, struck out 13 batters per nine innings and held opponents to a .175 batting average. Remove an anomalous rough outing against the Astros in his second-to-last appearance of the season, and Bautista’s ERA as a closer was a minuscule 1.71. Bautista’s signature “Omar entrance” was inspired by a fictional character, and at times his feats seemed like they could only be possible in works of fiction.

Bautista was so dominant in his opening major league campaign that it’s hard to see where the limit is on his potential. Yes, much of the time his control was far from pinpoint. However, his pure stuff was so good that it never seemed to matter. If Bautista can make the improvements seen throughout 2022 in just the course of a season, it seems like he will only continue to get more dominant moving forward. With a repertoire reminiscent of a young, right-handed Aroldis Chapman and the physique of an NFL offensive tackle, Bautista showed everything he’ll need to continue to etch his name in the storied history of great Orioles relievers.

However, maybe the most important part of Bautista’s contribution to the 2022 O’s was the amount of fun he brought every time he entered the game. In many ways, watching him pitch was often an adventure. Bautista’s appearances were always exhilarating, though, and something Birdland could consistently get excited about. For so long the Orioles’ bullpen was a source of misery. With Bautista as the mountainous peak of this current group of relievers, he made the end of the games joyous occasions once again.

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, Bryan Baker, Tyler Wells, Austin Voth, Jorge Mateo, Dean Kremer, Cionel Pérez, Cedric Mullins, Ramón Urías, Dillon Tate, Adley Rutschman

Tomorrow: Nobody. This is the end of the list.