The freshest memory that any of us have of Bryan Baker is when the Orioles brought him in to Game 2 of the ALDS. Given a clean inning and the task of getting out Rangers batters, he failed completely, walking the bases loaded before being yanked after recording just a single out. This was bad on its own and it became catastrophic when Jacob Webb came in and allowed a grand slam to make the Rangers lead almost insurmountable. That really sucked.
It is important in evaluating our favorite baseball team and other things in life to guard against the trap of the recency bias. The last thing that happened is probably not the best thing that’s ever happened nor the worst thing; it only feels this way because it’s freshest in our memory. Baker’s bad day in October is not the only thing that happened to him this year, and even he deserves a wider look at his season before pronouncing him to be the failure that he was in the postseason.
By the time the 2023 season came to an end, Bryan Baker had finished with a 3.60 ERA, 1.267 WHIP, and 10.2 K/9 for the Orioles. These are not great numbers, certainly nothing that would make you comfortable with that guy in the ninth inning, but even many good teams will be cycling through relievers with worse season totals than this.
Of the four teams that played in the LCS round this year, Houston had three relievers with 30+ games pitched and a worse ERA than Baker, Texas had four, Philadelphia had three, and Arizona had six. There is a lot of room, even on successful teams, to squeeze a guy getting Baker-like results into the bullpen.
These surface-level decent results were not enough for the Orioles themselves to even want to keep squeezing Baker onto the roster. Baker was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on August 2, the corresponding move when the O’s activated their trade acquisition Jack Flaherty. He stayed with Triple-A Norfolk for nearly six weeks until the team brought him back long enough to be the “pitch as long as you can and save the bullpen” guy on September 17. Which, on that occasion, he did, going three innings and saving a ragged bullpen. Then as a reward, they sent him right back to Norfolk.
Baker had been on my own personal list of Orioles who annoy me for a while before the first demotion, so the move to send him to the minors neither surprised nor irked me. This boils down largely to one recurring theme of Baker’s 2023 campaign: When brought in to a messy situation with one or more men already on base, he was horrible at keeping those runners from scoring.
Over his 46 games pitched in the regular season, Baker inherited 35 runners from a previous pitcher. Of these runners, 19 came in to score - 54%. I’ve grimaced at my screen just typing that one. It’s a terrible number. League-wide in 2023, inherited runners scored 32% of the time. If you are going to be a reliever that a team trusts, you need to be good enough to escape most of those situations, and this year, Baker wasn’t. Webb letting all the runners score was a kind of karmic balancing that Orioles fans could have done without.
The Orioles probably had a more sophisticated reason than “he sucks at keeping inherited runners from scoring” to use to decide to drop Baker to Norfolk. Maybe they weren’t enamored with his season-long command problems. Baker walked 24 of the 186 batters he faced as a big leaguer in the regular season - that’s 12.9%.
This is, like with the inherited runners, substantially worse than the league-wide average. Batters drew walks in 8.6% of plate appearances. Baker’s walk percentage was 50% higher than the league’s. It was worse than anybody’s who pitched a significant amount for the Orioles, and if you just read that and thought “Even worse than Shintaro Fujinami’s?” let me tell you: Yes, even worse. Fujinami, as an Oriole, issued walks to 11.9% of batters.
Baker was walking dudes even in his time in Triple-A! He issued eight free passes to 66 batters after his demotion there. He was also giving up a lot of hits to lesser-quality batters; Baker’s last two regular season Triple-A games saw him give up seven runs (three earned) while allowing seven hits and two walks.
The second-guessing about putting Baker on the postseason roster at all was one of the better critiques about the Orioles playoff strategy. It’s not why they got swept, but it didn’t help. Why bring him back at all? They liked how he pitched in the Triple-A playoffs, apparently.
It’s worth saying about Baker and his postseason dump that not even a dedicated Baker hater - of which I am probably one of the greater ones - would have expected anything as disastrous as what he did in ALDS Game 2. Even command-challenged guys don’t usually walk the bases loaded. Baker never issued three walks in a game at all in 2023 until summoned into that game. That was a bad day to have the worst day of his career.
This season was bookended by disastrous outings for Baker. His first game of the year was the season opener, and he was called upon with the team holding a six run lead over the Red Sox in the eighth inning. By the time he was done pitching that day, the lead was down to a mere three runs. Baker didn’t finish the eighth, giving up three runs as he gave up two hits, walked a guy, and hit another guy.
Had Baker spent the whole season pitching like this, he would have been gone a lot sooner. After that awful Opening Day, Baker pitched 15 consecutive outings without allowing a run. The 40.50 ERA dropped to 1.72, and this wasn’t a smoke and mirrors kind of thing. His Fielding Independent Pitching number, the ERA analogue that tries to account for how a pitcher has performed using only what is under the pitcher’s control, was at 2.17 at the end of this stretch.
The reason this was a mirage may be that it was the soft part of the Orioles schedule, facing what turned out to be a lot of weak offenses. Things got worse for Baker again as soon as the O’s hit the first of the season’s gauntlets, with seven earned runs allowed in 11 May innings. In June, it was clear he’d fallen down the list of trusted guys; Baker only appeared in nine June games after making 13 appearances in May. He was mostly the sixth inning guy then and still had his struggles before being sent to Norfolk. Then in the ALDS he was the third inning guy and we saw how that went.
When things are going well for Baker, he can be a guy with some fun swagger. Remember that time he made the Blue Jays mad at him for moonwalking off the mound after a clutch out? Imagine being another team and the guy you beef with is Bryan Baker. Embarrassing stuff. He just could not be that guy consistently enough.
Baker turns 29 in December. He does not have a minor league option year remaining for the 2024 season, meaning that he’s pretty much in “shape up or ship out” territory. If he doesn’t show up to spring training next year looking like the command issues are fixed, he might end up on waivers. Depending on how the O’s decide to shuffle players through the 40-man over the offseason, Baker might not even make it to spring training. No one who watched that ALDS meltdown will feel too bad about it.
Tomorrow: Jorge Mateo