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Mike Baumann got a new role, and the results were somewhat improved

The big right-handed reliever wasn’t All-Star material, exactly, but he was one of the Orioles’ most frequently used and reliable arms.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
Fist pump. Mike Baumann wasn’t bad in 2023.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

As we get further and further away from 2018, the last draft run by Dan Duquette & Co. (they took Grayson Rodriguez in the first round), it’s becoming possible to give a more complete verdict on what the old Orioles regime did well and did badly.

It was the single biggest knock on the Duquette-era Orioles: they couldn’t draft or develop pitching talent. The ledger includes first-rounders Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Hunter Harvey, and Cody Sedlock.

Now flash back to 2019, when the Orioles Top 30 prospects list featured these pitchers: DL Hall (#3), Rodriguez (#5), Keegan Akin (#6), Zac Lowther (#8), Dean Kremer (#9), Blaine Knight (#10), Brenan Hanifee (#11), Harvey (#12), Dillon Tate (#18), Luis Ortiz (#19), Zach Pop (#20), Cody Carroll (#21), Branden Kline (#22), Mike Baumann (#27), Alex Wells (#28) and Drew Rom (#29).

It’s hard to look at that list and claim that the haters were wrong. Sixteen pitching prospects in the Top 30 in 2019, and just five pitched a game or more for the Baltimore Orioles in 2023. Of those five, three—Rodriguez, Hall and Kremer—had success. One—Keegan Akin—was injured-slash-bad. And one—Baumann—well, that’s what we’re here to talk about.

Drafted in 2017, “Big Mike” Baumann was the Orioles’ second straight third-round pick out of Jacksonville, following Austin Hays the year before. The Atlantic Sun pitcher of the year in 2014, the 6’4” right hander came with a nice pedigree and a four-pitch starter’s mix.

That said, there were doubts about how well all four would play at the major-league level. Baumann’s MLB Pipeline profile gave him a 60 (out of 80) for his fastball, a 55 for his “above average” slider, a 45 for a “fringy” curveball, and a 50 for a changeup that needed work. Baumann could be starter material, they predicted, “if he can make strides with his command and changeup”; if not, his fastball-slider combo could play in the bullpen.

Here we are, four years later, and Pipeline’s predictions about Baumann have mostly proven accurate. Command remains an issue for the righty, with 4.6 walks per game in ‘23, and the changeup still isn’t a pitch he trusts (he throws it just 2.4% of the time). Command and the changeup were thought to define his ceiling as a starter, and lo and behold, in March of this year, just before spring training, the Orioles announced they were moving Baumann to relief. About the only thing Pipeline didn’t get right: Baumann still throws the curveball (about 25% of the time) and it’s a great pitch for him (33% whiff rate).

By all appearances, the move was a successful one for both sides. Before this year, Baumann had appeared in a grand total of 17 games for the Orioles (four starts) in two seasons and had a 5.89 ERA and a 1.602 WHIP in that time. His 4.55 FIP gave reason for hope, but a 5.7 SO/9 rate and a .311 opponent average less so.

This year, almost all of those numbers were better. Baumann appeared in 60 games, more than any Orioles pitcher besides Danny Coulombe, Cionel Pérez and Yennier Cano. He “vultured” 10 wins with just one loss. His 3.76 ERA was his best since he posted a 3.44 mark in 18 games between Norfolk and Bowie in 2021. His WHIP was 1.314, he struck out 8.5 hitters per game, and opposing batters hit .221 against him. All three of his main pitches—fastball, curveball, slider—saw their whiff rates go up. The only area Big Mike got worse: walks. He throws hard. Sometimes he walks people.

Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?

You might have noticed that none of Baumann’s totals are stunning. They’re just … fine.

But Baumann still has upside. He has a nice fastball that plays well because of his height, and he’s throwing it about a mile faster than he did as a starter (the pitch averaged 96.4 mph in 2023). His curveball is trending up in terms of whiffs and expected hard contact. And his strikeouts went up by about four batters a game, too.

Plus he’s costing the Orioles next to nothing, in MLB terms. He made $722,000 on a one-year deal last year and isn’t arbitration eligible until 2026.

Are there better relief pitchers out there? Yes, there are. But even “fine” players have a place on good teams. In WAR (a rough measure, but it gives some idea), the following Orioles pitchers gave the team more value than Big Mike: Kyle Bradish, Félix Bautista, Yennier Cano, Tyler Wells, Dean Kremer, Danny Coulombe, Grayson Rodriguez, Kyle Gibson and John Means. Twenty-one were worse.

If that’s the cutoff, I’ll bring him back. Relief pitchers don’t grow on trees, after all.

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

Tomorrow: Ramón Urías