The way in which the Orioles bullpen turned into a weapon last season was a shock to just about everyone. It was a unit almost entirely bereft of a proven major league reliever, and it’s not like the O’s organization had earned the benefit of the doubt when it came to developing arms. Add in the fact that these relievers were expected to pick up the slack for a clearly flawed starting rotation, and the chances of success seemed slim.
But it happened! The group ended up with not just one but two star closers in Jorge López and Félix Bautista; the former dealt at the trade deadline and the latter expected to be a late-inning fixture for years to come. Cionel Pérez defied his peripherals to lead the staff with a 1.40 ERA. Dillon Tate continued to establish himself as a viable set-up option. Not to mention big contributions from Bryan Baker, Joey Krehbiel, and Keegan Akin, two elder rookies and a failed starter.
However, previous achievements don’t mean much in a major league bullpen. It’s a role that breeds inconsistency, and teams frequently shuffle arms in and out in hopes that something eventually clicks.
The Orioles, somewhat surprisingly, did relatively little of that over the offseason. Rule 5 pick Andrew Politi was returned to the Red Sox after the spring. Noah Denoyer was added to the 40-man roster, but has started the year in Norfolk. DL Hall wasn’t converted into a reliever (yet). And the two veteran additions were familiar face Mychal Givens and journeyman Danny Coulombe. Hardly an overhaul by any means.
Now, three-ish weeks of baseball is nowhere near enough time to draw concrete conclusions on a team’s bullpen. But in that time this Orioles unit, once again, has looked like one of the best in the sport despite the roster stagnation.
It all starts—or rather, ends—with Bautista. There is no indication that the knee injury he faced at the end of 2022 is hampering him at all this year. In fact, he looks much stronger. Half of the batters he faces end up striking out. His K-rate per nine innings is 18.78 (!!). And his ERA is a microscopic 1.17.
The velocity on all pitches appears flat year over year, but the types of swings he’s getting this year would fit better on a blooper reel than in a major league baseball game. No pitcher gets more whiffs than Bautista, and most of them come on his comical splitter. The offering has a 92% whiff rate. This is a pitch he throws nearly 40% of the time. It’s safe to say that his role as closer is secure.
Félix Bautista's Stuff is Impossible. pic.twitter.com/fIx68HjhrL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 15, 2023
Coulombe has been the out-of-nowhere contributor in the season’s early goings. Added in a trade with the Twins at the end of spring training, he’s been a revelation. The 33-year-old lefty is yet to issue a walk and boasts 13.50 K/9. He’s doing it with a slider-heavy approach that has opposing lineups off-balance. The effectiveness of that slider is real. He’s getting batters to chase and whiff. So while his 1.35 ERA might creep up eventually, there is a lot to like through 6.2 innings of work.
Baker is back to his mad man ways. His fastball remains the go-to, and while the velocity is down just a touch it remains impactful. In fact, the big righty is getting far more whiffs (38.6%) early on, and he has paired that with seemingly better control, walking just a pair of hitters over 8.1 frames.
Mike Baumann may qualify as the secret weapon of the bullpen for the time being. A decent starting prospect for years in the Orioles system he is now a full-time reliever, a switch that is working well for him. He has a 0.96 ERA through 9.1 innings and features a four-seam fastball that has a .091 batting average against so far. There are numbers to worry about, namely the combination of 7.71 K/9 and 4.82 BB/9 plus a ridiculous 90% left on base rate. But for a player in the midst of a role change you take the early successes and hope the tangential numbers eventually align.
It hasn’t been a perfect start to the year for the relievers. Pérez is (unfortunately) seeing results that better align with his expected numbers. Akin looks more like the August/September version rather than his lights out work from earlier on in 2022. And both Austin Voth and Logan Gillaspie are dealing through some struggles.
But all of this combines into a unit with some impressive output and room to grow. Their 10.01 K/9 is eighth-best in MLB while their 2.33 BB/9 is the league’s best. That’s reflected in their 3.45 FIP and 1.0 fWAR, both of which rank fourth in baseball.
Remember, this isn’t even the full strength version of the Orioles relief group. Givens, a veteran expected to provide depth in the middle innings, is yet to pitch after dealing with knee inflammation all spring. And Tate is due back in May after an elbow strain cost him a spot in the US bullpen during the WBC as well as the entirety of spring training.
Plus, it feels like the Orioles have solid insurance plans down in Triple-A when/if they need them. Krehbiel has a 1.50 ERA, lefty Nick Vespi continues his solid work (eight strikeouts in six innings), and Denoyer awaits his big league debut. They have already called upon Yennier Cano from Norfolk, and he’s impressed in two brief appearances. While nothing is certain, the club does have formidable depth to deal with injuries and subpar performance.
The ever-present threat for a successful bullpen is a starting rotation that refuses to go deep into games. That’s something the Orioles are currently dealing with every day that someone not named Kyle Gibson toes the rubber. But hopefully that improves as Grayson Rodriguez develops, Kyle Bradish returns, and Dean Kremer figures out whatever is currently ailing him
For now, though, the O’s are once again sporting a deep ‘pen that is producing despite injuries and will expect two veteran arms back in the weeks ahead, further solidifying the bridge between their shaky starters and an enviable closing talent. Maybe 2016 wasn’t so long ago after all.