This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features 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.
Like the other Orioles covered in this series to date, right-hander Bryan Baker is a relatively late addition to Baltimore’s 40-man roster, having joined via waiver claim from the Blue Jays in November of last year. His career started with two and a half years in the Rockies system before a trade to the Blue Jays organization, where he’s played the past three and a half years.
As a 27-year-old minor league reliever who is past prospect status, Baker represents depth for a team in desperate need of bullpen help. Oriole relievers had the highest ERA (5.70) in baseball last year, and there’s room for new blood. If he keeps missing bats and cuts down on the walks, Baker could slot in among the right-handers currently ticketed for the bullpen in 2022, like Tyler Wells, Dillon Tate, and Cole Sulser.
An imposing presence on the mound at 6’6”, 245 lbs, Baker has just one inning of MLB experience, which came late last season as a member of the Blue Jays. Facing the Athletics on September 5, 2021, Baker’s dramatic debut included a leadoff single and a pair of wild pitches. But he stranded a runner on third and got out of the jam unscathed. His fastball was clocked around 94-95 mph in that game.
Last summer before his promotion, John Pullano of Bisons.com wrote a profile of the young writer-hander titled Getting to know the Herd: Bryan Baker. It explains Baker’s success pounding the strike zone, evidenced by 60% of his pitches going for strikes and opponents only seeing 4.47 pitches per at-bat in 2021. In the same piece, former Bisons teammate Kevin Smith praised the pitcher’s tenacity by saying, “when we go back on the field and Baker shuts them down and shows some emotion coming off and becomes like a dog, it shows we are right there in these games.” Pullano writes that “...while seeming excessive, Baker’s constant fire and intensity have been what has made him great for the Bisons all year.”
Looking at how Baker got where he is today, he eschewed professional baseball the first time he was drafted. The Pirates originally made him a 40th round pick in 2013 out of Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Instead of signing with Pittsburgh, Baker decided to go to college. He pitched three years for the University of North Florida Ospreys in the Atlantic Sun Conference, spending most of his time in the rotation. He made 42 appearances (including 32 starts) and recorded a 3.67 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 4.4 BB/9, and 7.0 SO/9.
Then the Rockies drafted Baker in the 11th round of the 2016 draft, and he had a brutal introduction to rookie ball later that year, posting a 6.56 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, and 7.7 K/9 in 11 games started (48 innings).
Baker looked like a different pitcher with Single-A Asheville in 2017. With a move to the bullpen, his strikeout rate jumped (9.4 K/9) while his WHIP and ERA dropped to 0.99 and 1.66, respectively. Moving forward though, walks became an even bigger problem.
Between two Single-A affiliates in 2018, Baker averaged 6.5 BB/9 and 11.7 K/9. Splitting his time between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019, those numbers were 6.0 and 11.8, respectively.
Put all his minor league stops together, and Baker is averaging 10.3 K/9 across five seasons, including 10.5 K/9 last season with Triple-a Buffalo. If he can maintain the strikeouts while improving his walk rate, he’s got a chance to work out of the O’s bullpen this summer. But that’s a big if.
Baker has some closing experience in his past too. He collected 12 saves in 2019 (Double-A and Triple-A), and 11 saves with the Triple-A Bisons last year. Baltimore’s lack of a bona fide closer and manager Brandon Hyde’s willingness to ride the hot hand suggests that Baker could contribute to the 2022 committee.
At the same time, there are plenty of more experienced candidates in the O’s bullpen. So while pegging Baker for a part-time closer at this point of the year is foolhardy, the best-case scenario may put his future in high-leverage late-inning work instead. Baker’s ability to carve out a role will depend on his consistency and winning Hyde’s trust.
While Baker has a shot at earning a promotion to Baltimore sometime this season, or maybe even break camp with the O’s, there are plenty of other pitchers like Isaac Mattson, Logan Gillaspie, Jorge Lopez, and Joey Krehbiel to contend with for innings.
Yet Baker comes with a cheap, controllable contract on the plus side. The earliest the righty can become a free agent is 2028, and he’s not arbitration-eligible until 2025.
End-of-year prediction: I’ll go out on a limb and say that Baker shows his bulldog intensity on the mound and pitches well enough to finish the year on the Orioles’ big league roster. That’s not to say he’ll earn an Opening Day spot, but with attrition and roster-shuffling throughout a long season — including the addition of a few extra rosters spots come September — Baker will finish the 2022 season with the O’s.
Monday: Rougned Odor