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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Dillon Tate

The last remnant of the Zack Britton trade was an O’s bullpen mainstay in 2021, but didn’t cement himself into a high-leverage role.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Perhaps the best thing to be said about Dillon Tate’s 2021 season was that he was always...there.

That’s actually pretty impressive, considering the head-spinning turnover rate in the Orioles’ bullpen last season. Tate, minus an 18-day stint on the injured list in May, remained on the Birds’ 26-man roster from start to finish. He and Cole Sulser were the only pitchers from the O’s Opening Day bullpen who were still active by season’s end. A whopping 38 players — including three position players — made at least one relief appearance for the Orioles last year. Nobody had more than Tate’s 62, and no reliever matched his 67.2 innings pitched.

And yet, for someone who came trotting through the bullpen doors more than anyone else, Tate didn’t do much to distinguish himself.

The 27-year-old right-hander never particularly settled into a defined relief role, often pitching late in games but other times entering as early as the fourth inning in mop-up duty. Whenever he seemed to be pitching himself into a higher leverage role, he’d struggle through a few rough outings in a row to lose Brandon Hyde’s trust. From the end of April to the beginning of June, Tate was scored upon in seven straight appearances, with his IL stint (for a left hamstring strain) sandwiched in between. He bounced back for the remainder of June, posting a 1.88 ERA in his final 10 games of the month, culminating with a hitless 2.2-inning save in Houston.

Before Tate could make a play for the Orioles’ open closer role, he was tagged for six runs in his next three outings. He got back into a groove — twirling 10 straight scoreless appearances — only to hit the skids again, giving up two runs apiece in his next three games. Such was the roller coaster of Tate’s 2021 season. He finished the year with a 4.39 ERA and 104 ERA+.

Toiling in middle relief for a 110-loss team is perhaps not where Tate thought he’d end up when the Texas Rangers drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2015. He was traded twice while still in the minors — first to the Yankees for Carlos Beltran in 2016, then to the Orioles in the Zack Britton deal two years later. By that time, Tate, who’d been groomed as a starting pitcher in his previous two organizations, wasn’t showing the durability or consistency to stick in that role. The Mike Elias regime shifted him to bullpen duty for Double-A Bowie in 2019, giving him a quicker path to the majors. He debuted that July.

In a league full of hard-throwing relief pitchers who rack up gaudy strikeout numbers, Tate isn’t that guy. He struck out 6.5 batters per nine innings in 2021, putting him in the bottom 10 percent of major league pitchers. There’s nothing wrong with his velocity — he averaged a tick over 95 mph on his sinker last year — but he simply doesn’t generate many swings and misses.

When Tate is on, he avoids barrels and induces weak contact. Sixty percent of balls in play against him last year were hit on the ground. Those skills should be enough to keep him in a major league bullpen for a while, in some role or another. But a pitch-to-contact type of hurler will always be subjected to the whims of batted-ball luck or the quality of defense behind him. Unless Tate can figure out how to ratchet up the strikeout rate, he’s probably not going to find a home as a closer or lockdown setup man.

End-of-season prediction: Tate figures to be a near-lock for the Orioles’ Opening Day bullpen, assuming Opening Day ever actually happens. He was one of the better pitchers for a team that posted a 5.85 staff ERA last year, and was one of the very few relievers who managed to avoid the Baltimore-Norfolk shuttle. He’ll slot in as a middle reliever or perhaps a setup man to presumptive closer Tyler Wells.

The O’s have added a number of relief arms to the 40-man roster this winter but nobody with any real track record of big league success, so it’s not as if pitchers are beating down the door for Tate’s roster spot. Assuming health, I predict he’ll finish the 2022 season in the Orioles’ bullpen, working in a variety of roles as he did a year ago.

Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall, Jahmai Jones, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Jorge López, Ramón Urías

Tomorrow: Paul Fry