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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Paul Fry

Once a rock in the bullpen, the lefty’s struggles with control after the sticky substance ban leave his long-term future in doubt.

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-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.

NOTE: The Orioles designated Paul Fry for assignment on 5/14/22 and traded him to the Diamondbacks on 5/18 for minor league pitcher Juan Osorio. He is no longer on the 40-man roster.

Amid all the commotion about the lockout, one story from last season that’s not getting a lot of airtime is how the MLB ban on “foreign substances” will play out for pitchers in 2022 and going forward. You might remember that last June 3, MLB announced the ban without warning, and all of a sudden, umps were checking caps between innings, pitcher injuries started to spike, and a lot of seeming aces went downhill.

Gerrit Cole was one highly visible example. Unhittable in April and May with a 1.43 and 2.18 ERA those two months, respectively, Cole crashed to earth quickly, managing just a 4.71 ERA in July and a 5.13 mark in September. His walks increased, and so did batters’ hard contact against him: hitters OPS’d .584 against Cole in the first half of the season but .725 in the second.

The Orioles were already the worst-pitching team in the majors when the surprise ban was rolled out—was there room to get much worse? Yes, it turned out. In the wake of the ban, several Orioles throwers regressed, including John Means, Jorge López, Tanner Scott, and the now-departed Adam Plutko. A few saw their stats absolutely decimated, perhaps none more so than Paul Fry.

For the last four seasons, Paul Fry has been a cheap and reliable lefty out of the bullpen for Baltimore. Drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2013, Fry was traded to the Orioles in April 2017 for international bonus slot money. He’s been one of the few players to bridge the Duquette-Elias eras, largely due to his having developed into a guy who could miss bats and keep walks to a minimum.

His best season so far with Baltimore was 2020, when he put up a nice 2.45 ERA in 22 appearances with 11.9 K’s per nine innings and a 3.22 strikeout/walk ratio. That year, he was a specialist in drawing weak contact, ranking in the top 6% of MLB pitchers in expected slugging and expected ERA.

Fry, who has two main pitches, a fastball and a slider, is a typical pitcher whose main weapon is not speed, but spin. His fastball is good, but not as good as his devastating slider, his main put-away pitch. In 2020, the pitch averaged 9.3 inches of horizontal movement, Top 3 in the league among sliders. The pitch also had a 48.4% whiff rate.

But Fry couldn’t replicate that dominance after June 2021. Here are his monthly splits for the season.

Paul Fry’s 2021 monthly splits

These ugly splits—especially the rising walks and that over-20 ERA in August—suggest a sudden and swift decline (a good July is now appearing like a blip of sorts). Fry’s season-long walk percentage of 16.3% ranks in the bottom 1% of the league. And his chase rate (referring to when batters swing at a pitch outside the zone) was also bottom 1%. In short, Fry was missing the zone and batters weren’t getting fooled because his pitches weren’t deceptive.

Fry’s MLB season ended prematurely on August 29, when the lefty got word he was being sent down to Triple-A, a stunning reversal for a guy who, a year earlier, was arguably one of the best lefty relievers in the league.

Fry’s problems start and end, not to put too fine a point on it, with spin. In 2020, Fry’s slider averaged 2802 rotations per minute. (For reference, an MLB average slider spins at a rate of about 2400-2500 RPM.) Fry’s spin rate kept going up in 2021—we can assume the Elias regime has helped him work on that—until June, when it didn’t. On May 2, 2021, the Fry slider clocked a mind-boggling 3,002 RPM during gameplay. By July 7, it had dropped down to an average 2,560 rotations per minute, down -213 RPM from his previous season average. Pre-ban, Paul Fry’s slider was a standout. After, it looked sort of average.

That is how you go from being a Top-10 reliever in drawing weak contact one year to being demoted to the minors the next.

Which is why the question about the sticky substance ban’s future is so important. The equation sounds simple enough: if Paul Fry regains his spin, he’ll boost his strikeouts and lower his walks. If not, he has a slider that is just “meh.”

For now, all the evidence is that MLB will continue to enforce this ban as strictly as they did last season. Through the first two months of the 2021 season, the league batting average (.236) was on pace to be the lowest in history. Rob Manfred doesn’t want a repeat of those offensive doldroms, meaning that now, according to the rules, pitchers can’t use “foreign substance[s] of any kind”; can’t throw “shine ball[s], spit ball[s], mud ball[s], or emery ball[s];” and can’t attach anything to their pitching hand “e.g., Band-Aid, tape, Super Glue, bracelet, etc.” Sounds pretty strict. MLB has reportedly been testing out a pre-tacked ball at Triple-A to give pitchers some grip while keeping everyone on a level playing field. But those changes won’t trickle up to the MLB in 2022, if ever. So it seems like this season will be a low-spin one.

A lot of pitchers would seem to be in this boat. Some, of the brute force model, will weather it better than others. Paul Fry, however, is a pure deception guy. It doesn’t seem like he’ll be hitting 3,000 RPM in 2022, but can he get to a level that’s competitive? Maybe. Whatever he’s been working on this (extended) offseason, you know it had something to do with throwing his slider with minimum levels of grip. Will it work?

End of season prediction: Over his four seasons with Baltimore, Paul Fry has had two good years (2018 and 2020) and two bad ones (2019 and 2021). Through it all, though, his FIP (fielding-independent pitching) has been a relatively consistent 3.98. Is that good enough to stick in the Orioles bullpen for now? Unfortunately, I’d wager that it is. I predict Fry improves on his disastrous 2021 with a season that sees him put up a 4-ish ERA and remain in the majors as a bullpen piece. I don’t see him as a part of the “next great Orioles team,” unless he really surprises us. But stranger things have happened.

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, Dillon Tate

Monday: Zac Lowther