Teams love to dream about turning a solid relief pitcher into a valuable starter. The Orioles are no exception here. Not so long ago it felt like an annual spring storyline that Zack Britton, or Brian Matusz, was switching back to a rotation role. That never happened, of course, and ever since it has felt like the type of thing a team says but doesn’t really intend to follow through on.
Effective starting pitching is hard to find. Major league lineups are deeper than ever, and facing one multiple times in a day without imploding requires a combination of “stuff”, stamina, and precision. A standout reliever, though, tends to focus heavily on that first attribute. You can see why a theoretical switch doesn’t usually work out.
You would be forgiven if you viewed the talk of Tyler Wells moving to the rotation ahead of the 2022 season as a bit fantastical. This was a guy who came to the team as a Rule 5 pick, hardly an avenue that yields many intriguing starters. On top of that, injuries and a pandemic had cost him two seasons of development in 2019 and ‘20. Transitioning from that to a big league role last year was already a big ask. Then you wanted him to jump from 57 innings to a starter’s workload in one season? Good luck with that.
But it actually happened! Wells has stuck in the rotation through the season’s first two months, has looked the part, and only seems to be getting better.
Through 11 starts, Wells has tossed 47.2 innings with a 3.78 ERA and has arguably been the team’s most valuable starter, leading the unit with 0.9 bWAR and behind only Jordan Lyles with 0.7 fWAR.
The way in which Wells is finding success is unique, at least in the modern game. Strikeouts are a rarity in his starts. Among starters with at least 40 innings pitched this year, his strikeout rate per nine innings is the sixth lowest in MLB at 5.48. But he makes up for it with a lack of free passes as well. Among that same group of pitchers, his 1.70 walks per nine innings is 14th-best in the sport.
It’s all about inducing weak contact for Wells. He has seen his ground ball rate double from 21.9% in 2021 to 37.7% so far in 2022. And the average exit velocity of all balls put in play is down to 87.7 mph from 90 mph a season ago.
He has managed this without changing his pitch selection too much, especially considering he now has to face the same hitters more than once in a day. His fastball has, predictably, lost 1.6 mph on its velocity, but he has also cut back on its usage from 56.2% of all offerings to 39.2% this year. It its place he has bulked up on his changeup and his curveball.
The curveball, in particular, has evolved. Wells has added more than five inches of horizontal break while cutting down about three inches of vertical break. That has made it a bit more like a slurve in nature, and it’s working for Wells. The .140 expected batting average against the pitch is the best of his arsenal.
But there are growing pains, of course, and Wells is not immune. While most of his peripheral data suggests that his success is for real, there are a couple of things to monitor.
First is that strikeout rate. As a starter, his fastball is slightly more average than it was out of the bullpen. He still shows off elite spin rates, but the velocity is middle of the pack. This is expected, but it does make him more hittable. It’s not exactly a problem. Wells wouldn’t be the first pitcher to do well without blowing hitters away. But it does put more pressure on other aspects of his game. The precision has to be there. The defense needs to be positioned properly behind him. It just allows more room for error.
Second is the short outings. Wells averages about 4.1 innings per start. He has pitched beyond the fifth inning just twice and thrown more than 78 pitches just once. Obviously, the context matters here. This is his first season as a big league pitcher, and the Orioles are being cautious with him. Although he turns 28 later this year, his development is probably more like someone who is 25, and that could lead to to him slowing down late into the season. Shorter starts now would seem to be an attempt to prevent that.
But some of that may be viewed as nit-picky. All in all, Wells is a success story in the early part of this season. Better yet, most of the peripheral data agrees that he is a solid starter. His .239 batting average against is just slightly lower than the .248 expected batting average against. His 3.78 ERA is actually a touch higher than his 3.60 xERA and not worlds apart from his 4.46 FIP. And his 106 ERA+ seems to convey reality, which is that he has been a tad better than average.
There is still a long way to go in this season, and it will be interesting to see how Wells deals with the prolonged workload of a starter, especially with several arms around him missing time due to injury. But to this point, both he and the Orioles should be thrilled with the progress so far,