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Kyle Bradish became a bona fide ace in 2023

The right hander had the best season by an Orioles starter in more than 30 years

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

You could make the case that in 2023, no AL pitcher more dramatically outperformed expectations than Kyle Bradish.

As a 25-year-old, the right hander cracked the Orioles rotation in April 2022, but an unsightly 7.38 ERA in his first ten career starts got him optioned to Triple-A (shoulder pain was the official line, but also he just wasn’t good). Bradish returned in July with a new pitch mix and posted better results, including a 3.28 ERA in 13 starts down the stretch for a young and unexpectedly competitive Orioles team.

But entering 2023, it wasn’t clear whether Bradish was rotation material, depth, or unworthy of a roster spot at all. It all depended on whether he looked more like first-half-of-2022 Bradish or second-half Bradish. His preseason projections split the difference, treating him as a fringy starter with an expected ERA over four and a WHIP in the 1.30-1.40 range.

Well, about that. Over 30 starts in 2023, Bradish blew the doors off of all the scouting reports, projections, and predicted ceilings, emerging as the top starter on the American League’s No. 1 team. In 168.2 innings, he posted a 2.83 ERA (the AL’s third lowest), a 4.9 bWAR (3rd), and a 1.043 WHIP (3rd) while allowing fewer home runs and hits per start than all but one other starter.

Bradish pitched not just like the Orioles’ ace, but like a legitimate No. 1, a starter other teams’ GMs start to jealously scheme up prospect packages for. For his efforts, he finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting after Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray, and Kevin Gausman, the first time an O’s pitcher has been so honored since 2016.

What happened? It’s almost funny now to think that Bradish’s 2023 season started off rather poorly. Knocked out of his very first start, on April 3 against the Texas Rangers, after just 1.2 innings by a 104-mph liner off the foot, Bradish had to miss the next two weeks. He’d come back to post a 4.13 ERA over nine more starts after that—not terrible, but hardly indicative of budding greatness.

Then in early June, during a West Count trip, Bradish was driven from the mound after just four innings against the San Francisco Giants, having allowed three runs on seven hits. He’d later call this “kind of the turning point” in his season. Reflected Bradish, “I had a rough inning and then got taken out in the fourth, and kind of there had a mindset shift. Just knowing that I can’t keep doing that. It’s hurting the bullpen, hurting the team. Just going out there, working for a quality start every time was kind of the mindset after that.”

Whatever Bradish told himself, it worked. Over his last 20 starts of the season, he went 10-5 with a 2.31 ERA, a .191 batting average against, a .548 OPS allowed and a 0.92 WHIP.

How did Bradish make himself into an ace? In a nutshell: breaking balls. Last year, Bradish was primarily a fastball pitcher, throwing his four-seamer 44.5% of the time, followed by his slider at 29.9%. This year, his most-thrown pitch became the slider, which he threw 31.2% of the time, followed by his four-seamer at 22.4%, his sinker at 20.6%, curveball at 17.3%, and changeup at 8.4%.

A simplified wind-up helped, too. Back in 2020, Bradish’s MLB Pipeline scouting report worried about the young prospect’s delivery, fearing that “too many moving parts” on the mound could relegate him to the bullpen. Command and control were an issue for the young Bradish, but sometime in summer ’22, Orioles pitching coaches simplified Bradish’s delivery, including by having him stand on the right side of the rubber on the mound. The tweaks paid off almost immediately, and this year his BB% dropped from 9% to 6.6%.

With increased control came, according to at least one Bradish watcher, added strategic value: not only was Bradish able to consistently land his slider right on the corner gloveside—a nasty backfoot pitch against lefties that falls off the table against righties. Even more, he paired it with a sinker/two-seam fastball with opposite spin that he’d locate mostly armside. Thus, from the hitter’s POV, “you’ve got a slider or a sinker coming down the tunnel and one breaks armside while the other breaks gloveside and good luck guessing which is going where.”

The effect was that basically all of Bradish’s pitches worked better. In fact, his slider turned into one of the game’s best pitches period, and so did his curveball: Bradish’s +29 Run Value on breaking balls was the highest of any AL pitcher, with hitters’ wOBA against the curveball and slider a lowly .150 and .210, respectively. And while it’s true that the fastball remained something of a liability for him (.452 wOBA), by halving its frequency, Bradish halved the damage: he allowed 11 home runs on the pitch in 2022 but just 5 in 2023.

All this is to say, the Cy Young attention was highly deserved. Bradish became the first qualified O’s pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA since Mike Mussina posted a 2.54 ERA in 1992. He finished second in the AL in opponent batting average (2.15) and OPS (.605) and third in the AL in ERA and fourth in the majors behind only the eventual NL and AL Cy Young winners, Blake Snell of San Diego (2.25) and Gerrit Cole (2.63), plus Minnesota’s (now St. Louis’s) Sonny Gray (2.79).

Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?

Yeppers. Yes. It is decidedly so. In 21 of 30 starts this season, Bradish allowed two or fewer earned runs, including a dazzling 2.34 ERA in 14 starts in the second half. He isn’t even arbitration-eligible until 2025, so all of this marvelous value on the mound is coming on the dirt cheap. Bradish has said that this year he learned, not to throw, but to really pitch, and looking ahead to next season, with his competitor’s mentality and devastating arsenal of breaking balls, you have to like his chances to pitch this well again. After throwing 168 2/3 innings in 2023, Bradish should be set to chase a 200-inning season in 2024. He’s at the top of a massively improved Baltimore rotation, and he may have the stuff to stay there awhile.

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, Félix Bautista

Tomorrow: Adley Rutschman