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Felix Bautista proving to be a valuable commodity for the Orioles

The imposing, hard-throwing righthander has been a find for Baltimore, and brings an intimidation factor to the bullpen.

MLB: MAY 19 Yankees at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

He’s not the player Orioles fans tune in to see. That would be Adley Rutschman, or perhaps Ryan Mountcastle, or Cedric Mullins, or Trey Mancini.

But the player who is most likely to grab a viewer’s attention when he comes into the game? It’s hard to come up with a better fit on the current Orioles roster than Felix Bautista.

You can’t miss him. He’s credited as being 6-5 and 190 pounds on Baseball Reference, but that’s laughable. Bautista might be taller than that. He’s certainly heavier than that. And when he comes into the game, batters might not gulp in fear, but they’re not breathing a sigh of relief, either.

But there’s more than size to the rookie reliever. Yes, Bautista is huge. But his impact on the Orioles pitching staff isn’t too small, either.

He was signed as a free agent in 2016 and it’s taken six years, but the 26-year-old Bautista has emerged as an out-of-nowhere weapon in the Orioles’ bullpen. He’s made 18 appearances and pitched 17 innings, and he’s whiffed 20 batters in those outings. His ERA is down to 2.45 after another scoreless outing Monday against the Yankees. Batters are hitting .230 off of him.

It took him a while to get to this level. But he’s here now, and he’s proving that he can play.

Watching Bautista pitch, one gets the notion that he wasn’t so much born as he was assembled. Start with the fastball, which entering Monday was averaging 98.1 miles per hour, better than 98 percent of the game’s pitchers. All the other signs of a true power pitcher are there: his strikeout percentage, whiff percentage and fastball spin rate are all 78th percentile or better, indicating just how tough it can be to get the bat on him. In a game against the Cardinals, Bautista dialed it up to 101.9 miles per hour - the fastest pitch by a Baltimore pitcher in the Statcast era.

This element - a pitcher who can come out of the bullpen and just throw absolute smoke - hasn’t been in the Orioles’ bullpen for a while, but while tall pitchers who throw heat with precious little command are hardly a rarity, Bautista is showing he’s more than just reckless velocity. His walk rate of 3.9 per nine innings is considerably better than it was in a 2021 spent entirely in the minors (5.8) and a 2019 season spent at different levels of Class A ball (5.6).

We remember with a grimace the tale of Daniel Cabrera, another tall flamethrower who never figured out how to throw it in the strike zone. A similar issue likely was what kept Bautista out of the majors until now; it has been cleared up, which has opened the door for his arsenal to shine.

But Bautista’s appeal is also in that he has added finer elements of pitching to his repertoire. While the fastball is his bread and butter, making up 66 percent of his pitches, Bautista has also shown a dangerous mix of breaking and off speed stuff that has made him even more difficult to face. The same arm that throws upwards of 100 miles an hour can also throw a splitter that dives right off the table. Or a slider that breaks at 16 miles an hour off the pace of the fastball preceding it.

Which is all well and good, but not enough without the final trait that Bautista has been developing a knack for: the ability to come through in high-pressure situations. Tonight, summoned in the bottom of the seventh of a one-run game with the tying run on first and the go-ahead run at the plate, Bautista gave up a walk before striking out Giancarlo Stanton to protect the slim lead.

In his first save on May 10, he came in after Dillon Tate imploded in a save situation against the Cardinals by allowing a home run and putting two more runners on with the Orioles only up 5-3. Sensing his pitcher was leaking oil, manager Brandon Hyde called for Bautista, and he proceeded to mow down Tyler O’Neill to preserve the victory.

Those are not easy spots, and though the season still has nearly three-quarters of its games remaining, Bautista has shown he’s at ease in the uneasy moments. According to Baseball Reference, he’s holding hitters to a microscopic .059 average and .209 OPS in high-leverage situations. He’s surrendered one single in 17 at-bats. Normally tough, he’s been even tougher.

And that gives the Orioles a true asset. Could he be the closer down the road? Could he be a shutdown set-up man, think along the lines of what Kelvin Herrera was for the Royals in the day? Could he be what Paul Fry was last year before he fell off the cliff, that pitcher who’s a “get out of jail free” card whenever trouble brews?

That remains to be seen. Until then, he’s just someone Hyde calls for when he needs some outs. And it’s been fun watching him pitch.

Well, for us, at least.