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Félix Bautista’s dominant season to remember came with a cost

The Mountain was a big part of the surprising 101 win Orioles. They’ll have to get by next year without him.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

On an otherwise almost entirely unremarkable Friday night against the Rockies, nearly to the end of what turned out to be the 80th of the 101 wins for the 2023 Orioles, Félix Bautista threw a pitch that went high and wide and was in pain after. He came out of the game immediately, no warm-up tosses, and we all had to fear what turned out to be true, that Bautista had a torn elbow ligament that would require Tommy John surgery.

With one pitch, it was all over. Though the Orioles worked Bautista through a throwing program in September in an attempt to see if he’d be able to pitch through the partial tear and help the team in the playoffs, that effort did not succeed. Bautista’s 2023 season of late-inning dominance was over, and so were his chances of pitching in the 2024 season. Wherever the Orioles end up next season, they’re going to have to get there without Bautista.

The reason this hurts is simple. Bautista was a huge part of the team’s surprising success this year. Being able to rely on a nearly-automatic strikeout machine for the ninth inning - and sometimes even parts of the eighth and tenth innings - helped the team to its 30-16 record in one-run games. What he provided cannot be duplicated. The Orioles will have to chart a different late-inning course and hope they can end up with comparable results.

Looking back on Bautista’s 2023 campaign, one thing that stands out is how it ended up as this brilliant shining star even as its beginnings were honestly pretty rough. His adventures in the first two games of the season almost feel as though they happened to someone else. On Opening Day, brought in to try to finish things off after other pitchers had turned a blowout into a nailbiter, Bautista allowed multiple runs before finishing off the save.

The next game, after Ryan McKenna’s infamous dropped pop-up that would have ended the game, Bautista was hit with the walkoff loss from serving up a home run to freaking Adam Duvall. Orioles fans, including me, have generally focused the frustration for that onto McKenna rather than Bautista, but let’s be real. That was a crummy opening series for the closer. The version of the 2023 Orioles where Bautista does not rebound from that is a much darker one.

As we all know, that is not the version of the 2023 Orioles, or of Bautista, that we got. After those first two games was dominance. Bautista pitched another twelve games before the end of April and allowed just one earned run. In this close to four week stretch, Bautista held batters to just a .143 average and did not give up any extra-base hits, so the slugging percentage was .143 too.

That’s a good way to pick up saves. Not that Bautista was perfect even in that rest-of-April stretch. One blown save was turned around into a win by a bottom of the ninth walkoff rally. In another game, Bautista walked three Tigers but also struck out three Tigers. It’s just about the most tightrope-walking save that you can get. Thankfully, there weren’t too many like that.

It was the strikeouts that really made Bautista stand out as an elite reliever. He was quite literally without peer this season. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings this season, Bautista’s strikeout percentage of 46.4% was the best. Second place, Aroldis Chapman, was not even close at 41.4%, and only four more pitchers were at 36% or better.

There was no one out there like Bautista. His particular combination of being a 6’8” guy who can throw it triple digits and also have batters having to think about a high-80s splitter set up those uniquely elite results. According to the Statcast measurements, he was in the top 1% of all pitchers in the league in all of these stats: xBA, xSLG, wOBA, xwOBA, K%, Whiff%, fastball velocity, and xERA. He also led all pitchers in that 50+ innings group in batting average (.144) and Fielding Independent Pitching (1.88).

The strikeout thing really matters because it’s such a powerful skill to be able to rely on that to get out of any jams that may arrive. That’s doubly important in baseball in recent seasons when any extra inning is going to involve your preferred term for the automatic runner that starts on second base. Having a strong chance to strike out the first batter is a huge plus, and so is being able to strike out the next batter if the first guy up advances the runner to third with one out.

Four of the 11 Orioles extra-inning wins involved Bautista pitching both the ninth and tenth innings on the road. When you are nearly untouchable, that’s the kind of thing that you can pull off. Along with his 33 saves, Bautista was the winning pitcher in eight games. The Orioles only lost seven games in which he pitched. He could be called upon and counted on in a variety of late-inning situations.

When it comes to thinking about late-inning relief, Orioles fans are a little bit spoiled in this way: Everybody can get measured against 2016 Zack Britton’s perfect 47-for-47 saves, 0.54 ERA, and 0.836 WHIP. As great as his season was, Bautista does not touch that perfection. He blew six saves out of 39 opportunities, and finished with “only” a 1.48 ERA and 0.918 WHIP.

None of this takes away from the accolades he deserves for his 2023 campaign. Bautista was as good as back-end relievers got this season. The Orioles needed him to be great to be the surprise team that they were and despite a few hiccups, he was great for five months until his ulnar collateral ligament ripped.

It would have been interesting to see where he’d end up on Cy Young ballots if he’d been able to pitch in September with comparable results to his first five months. Even with only 61 innings pitched, he got a handful of votes and finished 11th. Britton, back in 2016, came in fourth place with 67 innings over that season.

Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?

Sadly for all of us, the answer is no. Bautista will land on the 60-day injured list as soon as that becomes available in spring training and spend the whole year there. The timing of Bautista’s injury in late August was such that there was almost no chance of Bautista pitching for the 2024 team even if he’d gotten surgery the very next day.

The Orioles attempting to rehab him enough to pitch in the postseason was worth a shot. Whether he got the surgery in early September or early November, he’d still be out until spring training 2025.

The Orioles signed Bautista to a two-year, $2 million contract covering the 2024 and 2025 seasons shortly after his injury. Bautista would have already been under team control for those years. We all have to hope he can come back in 16 months looking like his 2023 self.

2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, James McCann, Ryan O’Hearn, Mike Baumann, Ramón Urías, Cole Irvin, Ryan Mountcastle, Danny Coulombe, Tyler Wells, Cionel Pérez, Austin Hays, Yennier Cano, Dean Kremer, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, Grayson Rodriguez