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What do the Orioles have in Nick Vespi?

That hair! That slider! Can the lefty continue his early-season success?

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Baltimore Orioles Photo Day
We’re onto you, dude.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

[Author’s note: I wrote most of this before Nick Vespi’s disastrous fourth inning in Seattle on Wednesday, in which he threw 0.2 IP and allowed six earned runs. Vespi entered the game with an 0.79 ERA and left it with a 5.40—four-and-a-half runs higher than when he woke up on Wednesday. Lessons learned: DON’T count your lefty relievers before they hatch. DO expect 88-mph fastballs down the middle to get blasted.]

One stage of a baseball rebuild, O’s fans have come to learn—by the way, if any team wants tips on how to run a rebuild, just ask: we’re all experts at it now—is the part where the new front office comes in, surveys what’s been left around by the old regime, gives those players some limited audition time, and then cuts bait. A little less than a year ago, I wrote about how the team was starting to clean house, especially with pitchers from the Dan Duquette days stalling in the mid tiers of the minors.

Gone were guys like Tyler Erwin, Dallas Litscher and Jake Zebron. Next on the chopping block, it looked like: Blaine Knight (third round, 2018), Cody Sedlock (first round, 2016) and the 2013 minor-league signing Ofelky Peralta. Also under the microscope: this lefty I didn’t know anything about who’d just been promoted to Norfolk, Nick Vespi. (In fact, I knew so little about Vespi I called him a righty. Ouch. My apologies.)

I’m no whiz at prediction, but Peralta is in the Giants organization now, Sedlock has been DFA’d, though he still remains in Baltimore’s system, and I wouldn’t put huge sums of money on Blaine Knight (6.70 ERA, 2.01 WHIP at Norfolk this season) sticking around much longer. (Hope he proves me wrong.)

Where I was totally in the wrong was when it came to Vespi. All I can say in my defense is that the guy is a former 18th-rounder from 2015 rocking an 88-mph fastball and no experience above High-A baseball until 2021. Again, my apologies.

So, who is Nick Vespi? Only one of the least heralded guys in a bullpen that has grossly outperformed expectations this season, a dude who’s gone from “outside chance at a baseball career” to “solid middle-innings guy” in no time. I’m guessing the long-locked lefty is used to being treated like a fringey non-prospect: his Twitter handle is whoisnickv, for crying out loud.

Drafted as a starter by the Duquette regime, Vespi languished: after five seasons, he was still stuck in Delmarva, having glimpsed Aberdeen and been demoted. But 2021 rolled around, and the Elias regime changed Vespi’s usage, and soon, his outcomes. Promoted directly from Delmarva to Bowie, Vespi posted a 1.42 ERA in Double-A ball as a reliever, and suddenly he was striking out 12.32 batters per game. Called up by Norfolk in late July to finish out the 2021 season, Vespi got hit hard, with a .597 slugging percentage against, though his strikeouts stayed high (11.44 per nine innings). The team decided to leave Vespi unprotected in the draft, but the gamble paid off, because there was no Rule 5 draft this year, and now Vespi is a big leaguer. And, it looks like, a pretty good one.

The 2022 season began with Vespi back at Norfolk, and still nobody was paying attention—at least, not until he threw 14.1 scoreless innings while striking out 12.76 batters a game. “He’s not considered to be among the organization’s top-end pitching prospects,” wrote MLB Trade Rumors in May, “but his strong performance in Norfolk has become hard to overlook.”

The O’s stopped overlooking him on May 17, 2022, DFA’ing Logan Allen and calling up Vespi. And, other than yesterday’s outing, the party continues.

Before yesterday’s blowup, Vespi was rocking a 0.79 ERA, and an incredible—as in, difficult to even believe—516 adjusted ERA+. He debuted on May 20, with manager Brandon Hyde flinging him into a 6-6 tie game in the 12th inning against Tampa Bay. Vespi faced seven hitters and threw 24 pitches, 17 for strikes, 8 of the swinging variety. He whiffed three and kept the Rays off the board long enough for the O’s to scratch out the 8-6 walkoff win.

The folks over at Birdswatcher just ran a story on Joey Krehbiel, noting just how unexpected it was for the waiver claim Krehbiel to form part of MLB’s sixth-best bullpen in ERA, especially as a guy “whose fastball velocity is in the bottom tenth percentile of Major League pitchers.” Well, Vespi, join the club.

What is working for Nick Vespi right now? I’m no scout, but I’d say spin, mix, location, and delivery. The Vespi fastball clocks in at a sedate 88 mph, but its spin rate is 66th percentile, making it an above-average pitch in run value, along with his slider and curveball, both of which feature plus movement. The slider ranks as his best pitch, with hitters whiffing nearly 33% of the time on it. And while Statcast is less enamored with Vespi’s curveball in terms of expected average, his actual average on the pitch (before yesterday) was .000, out of 30 curveballs thrown.

Vespi is also using his pitch mix to offset his fastball, the way a few other guys in the Orioles stable with just-OK heat but a nice complement of offspeed pitches do, like Joey Krehbiel, Spenser Watkins, Keegan Akin and Jordan Lyles. (I can imagine that, while they were encouraging him to become a reliever, the Elias regime helped maximize Vespi’s pitch usage and delivery in a similar way.) Vespi throws 46% fastballs, 35% sliders, and 19% curveballs, but he has pronounced lefty-righty splits. Against lefties, Vespi throws more sliders than fastballs (about 51%), and barely any curveballs. Against righties, he throws 50% fastballs and an even number of sliders and curveballs.

This brings up location and delivery. Being slider-heavy with the lefties means a lot of diving balls low and away. Against righties, the fastball tunnels in and under the hands: same effect. To my untrained eye, Vespi also appears to be very good at pitch tunneling, as all his three of his pitches look pretty similar out of the hand. (Try clicking on “Show Random Video” and see for yourself.) My hypothesis is that righties see the slider and the curveball as pretty similar, allowing him to use them interchangeably.

It’s soon to prognosticate about Vespi’s continued success; the sample sizes are very tiny, after all. Vespi still counts as a relative unknown in this bullpen behind flashier flamethrowers Jorge López, Félix Bautista, Dillon Tate and Cionel Pérez. But this perpetual dark horse, unknown for seven seasons with the team that drafted him, finally seems to be breaking out.