The Orioles look tired. Sigh. It’s been a long season. Over the last 30 days, the bullpen has an ERA of 4.83, seventeenth in the game. Arms are down (Tyler Wells), others are gone (Jorge López), others are flagging (Keegan Akin, Joey Krehbiel), and others (Jake Reed, Yennier Cano) may not be very good at all (note I said maybe).
One reliever not wilting down the stretch is one whom, for much of the season, not many in Birdland liked: Bryan Baker. The lanky righty won’t win Most Valuable Oriole honors this year, but he’d certainly be in the running for “Most Random Oriole to Now Be a Solid Bullpen Contributor,” if that were a thing. (Actually, he’d probably get edged out by Cionel Pérez and Félix Bautista, but still.)
When the Orioles picked Baker up off waivers last November, he had exactly one inning of MLB experience and seemed most likely to end up as depth for an Orioles bullpen “in desperate need” of pitching help. That the Orioles needed to improve on a league-worst 5.70 bullpen ERA in 2021 is true but, after making the Opening Day roster and sticking on it the entire season, Baker has proven to be a lot more than depth.
Granted, the experiment didn’t look like a winner early on. By late April, Baker had an ERA of 6.14, and it even slightly worsened in May. That month, his WHIP reached a bloated 1.89, and his average against was .327. He became homer-prone and hit-prone in general. That was about the time O’s fans started calling for Baker’s head.
The next month, the Baker Renaissance started quietly, and most of us missed it. Baker put up a 3.09 ERA in June, followed by a 2.45 one in July. Though he took a step backward in August with a 4.50 ERA, it’s fair to point out that his only runs allowed in the month came during two August appearances against the Blue Jays—so maybe, as with many things, the problem is just the Blue Jays. Meanwhile, September has been Baker’s best month all season, with a sizzling hot 1.46 ERA in 11 outings and opposing hitters managing just a .190 average against the big righty.
Overall those monthly totals average out to a 3.70 ERA on the season and 0.9 WAR over 65.2 innings. Those are nice numbers, but Baker also didn’t miss a day this year, whether due to injury or being optioned or anything, and it can’t be overemphasized how valuable this is to manager Brandon Hyde. Baker has become the epitome of reliable in a ‘pen that is lately trending for the worse. For the dark horse waiver claim, this season-long Orioles audition has to be considered a success.
So what explains Baker’s essentially cutting his ERA in half after a rocky couple months as May rolled into June? If I had to guess (and here I am, guessing!) I would point to a) gaining experience and b) also gaining a changeup. It stands to reason that Baker was still going through rookie things over the first two months, adjusting to a new organization ... after all, he had only pitched one MLB inning in his career before.
As for pitch mix, by now it’s become a pattern to discover Orioles coaches fiddling with new pitchers’ arsenals. It looks like they did it with Baker, too. The most obvious change: introducing a changeup that resembles his fastball enough to confuse hitters. (It’s helpful that Baker’s heater regularly hits 98-99 mph, too.) According to BaseballSavant, Baker didn’t throw a changeup in 2021, and in the first two months of the 2022 season, he used it infrequently (between 8-12%). Starting in June, Baker’s changeup showed up around 20% of the time, and it became a huge pitch for him: in September batters actually hit .000 against a pitch they faced 20% of the time. No wonder he’s peaking.
I don’t want to make it sound as though Baker’s strong finish is preordained or in any way obvious, though. Given the conditioning angle, it’s still puzzling to me that he’s surging while so many Orioles arms are worn out or hurt. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but 65 innings over a season is a lot more than one!) I know Baker was still throwing bullpen sessions last season even when he wasn’t on the mound, but gametime play is different. It’s not like he’s been used this way before.
Maybe I’ll feel differently about Bryan Baker if he, say, ends up serving up Aaron Judge’s 62nd home run this weekend. I kid. We’d forgive Baker because he’s given this bullpen this season a lot already. Project your mind back to the offseason, recall what kind of (anti-)pedigree Bryan Baker had before joining this team, and remind yourself not to look this 6’6” gift horse in the mouth.