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How Felix Bautista can continue his mountainous rise in 2023

After an impressive rookie season, The Mountain still has room to grow if he wants to rise to the heights of other elite closers.

MLB: SEP 13 Orioles at Nationals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The ascension of Felix “The Mountain” Bautista during the 2022 season was one of the most enjoyable stories in Orioles’ baseball last year. Not only did Bautista begin to climb the ranks when it comes to great O’s closers, but he brought a level of fun to Baltimore baseball that has often been missing at Camden Yards over the previous five seasons. Hearing the Omar Whistle blare out over the speakers now sparks joy in Birdland the same way the Narco trumpets elicit elation in Queens—or the way “Enter Sandman” used to mean a swell of confidence for fans in the Bronx.

However, even with Bautista’s stretches of dominance, the Orioles’ rookie closer was far from infallible. Just like the rest of the O’s impressive 2022 rookie class, there are steps forward Bautista will need to take if Baltimore wants to climb that final hill separating them from the postseason.

The first step in Bautista’s continual improvement will likely come just from having a full year with Adley Rutschman as the Orioles’ primary catcher. We’ve covered extensively on this site how Rutshcman’s presence on the roster resulted in a boost for the entire pitching staff. That’s what tends to happen when you go from throwing to the likes of Robinson Chirinos and Anthony Bemboom to then having one of the best defensive catchers in all of baseball behind the dish.

Bautista was no exception. In 26 innings last year throwing to Chirinos and Bemboom, The Mountain was not necessarily at his peak—putting up a 2.77 ERA, .217 BAA and a 12.1 K/9. Once Adley arrived on the scene, Bautista’s performance truly reached new heights—to the tune of a 1.82 ERA, and .133 BAA while maintaining his strikeout rate. Should Bautista throw another 60-70 innings next year, you’d expect at least 50 of those to come with Adley behind the plate, meaning Bautista will get at least 10+ more innings throwing to an elite catcher. That’s certainly a good foundation to build upon.

However, just having Adley as his battery mate more often isn’t the only improvement we should hope to see from Bautista. Anyone who watched a lot of Bautista’s outings knows that his control is far from Maddux-esque. When you throw a fastball that consistently sits at 102 MPH, with one of the best splitters in baseball, you don’t need pinpoint accuracy to be effective. Bautista consistently proved that last year.

Yet, it feels like if Bautista could improve the location of his pitches—particularly his splitter—he would take a big step in climbing toward the stratosphere of truly elite closers. Now, I know what some of you are thinking: if Bautista’s splitter was so good, why does he need to improve that specifically? Ultimately it comes down to the way a better-located splitter would create cascading improvement across his entire pitching arsenal.

If you compare the heat maps of Bautista’s splitter and the heat map for an elite splitter user like former Oriole Kevin Gausman, the difference in location is evident. Whereas Bautista tends to leave some of his splitters in the heart of the zone, Gausman consistently locates his splitter just below the zone—keeping it away from right-handers and throwing at the back foot of lefties. For a pitcher like Bautista who loves to overpower hitters at the top of the zone with his fastball, being able to consistently keep his splitter down would make The Mountain all that more imposing.

As a hitter, trying to protect against 102 at shoulder height while also laying off a splitter that starts in the zone and ends up below your knees—that’s a nearly impossible adjustment to make. This would likely see Bautista make significant improvements in the barrel and hard-hit rates he gave up last season—two of the areas where Bautista has the most room for improvement.

One of the other areas where Bautista lags behind elite closers like Edwin Diaz of the Mets and Emmanuel Clase of the Guardians is his chase rate. Compared to the two reigning Reliever of the Year winners, the Orioles’ closer matches those elite relievers with an overpowering pitch arsenal. However, whereas Diaz, Clase and other elite relievers from 2022 rank in the upper 90s when it comes to their chase rate percentile, Bautista sat only in the 55th percentile.

As previously alluded to, part of that lower chase percentage comes from the fact that Bautista lived in the strike zone more than most relievers. It’s hard to get guys to chase when you’re pounding the zone with that electric fastball-splitter combo. Yet, there were several times last season when it felt like Bautista struggled to finish at-bats because hitters had (mostly) timed up his fastball and he couldn’t get them to chase his splitter. This was borne out in Bautista’s relatively high 3.93 pitches per batter faced.

What a lot of elite chase rate relievers have in common is their reliance on horizontally breaking pitches. Diaz threw over 58% sliders in 2022. Ninety-eight percent of Clase’s offerings were either his cutter of doom or an equally imposing slider. Other high chase-rate closers like Ryan Helsley of the Cardinals and Jordan Romano of the Blue Jays also heavily relied on sliders last season.

Despite the way it often seemed, Bautista is not a two-pitch pitcher. His arsenal does feature a slider. It’s just that the effectiveness of that slider often lagged greatly behind his four-seamer and splitter. This is best exemplified by the difference in whether or not batters swung at the pitches. For his fastball and splitter, Bautista got opposing batters to swing 53% and 52% of the time, respectively. The slider, on the other hand, generated swings only 33% of the time.

Now, just because Diaz, Clase, Romano, etc. all dominate opponents by getting them to chase wipeout sliders does not mean I’m suggesting Bautista should drastically increase his slider usage. Bautista threw his breaking ball 12% of the time last season, and keeping that usage around 15% is probably an ideal ratio going forward. However, if Bautista can make his slider a more competitive pitch, it could drastically increase his effectiveness.

Currently, opposing hitters only have to focus on whether Bautista’s pitches are coming in at the top of the zone or closer to the bottom of the zone. If the Orioles’ closer could start throwing an effective slider and force hitters to have to also protect against a horizontally breaking pitch, it can make The Mountain that much more insurmountable.

In 2022, Felix Bautista started the season as an unknown. By the end of the year, he’d become the newest name on the list of overpowering MLB closers. With a few improvements, we could see The Mountain rise to even more intimidating heights in 2023.