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Dean Kremer’s season is back where it should be

The Orioles’ best starter a season ago, Kremer fought through some April struggles to regain his footing this month

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Brent Skeen-USA TODAY Sports

Last year was Dean Kremer’s breakthrough. He bounced back from an early injury, eventually got his chance in the Orioles rotation and ran with it. By season’s end he was the team’s top starter and looked poised to become a mainstay for the foreseeable future. But baseball is a tough game, and things don’t always go according to plan. Six subpar starts to begin 2023 had the 27-year-old suddenly ripe for demotion.

Kremer had one good start in April. It came mid-month against the Nationals. On that night he tossed 6.2 scoreless innings, striking out six in the process. He was terrific! But every other outing of his was disastrous, particularly the one against the lowly Tigers. The most impotent lineup in baseball collected five runs on 11 hits and two walks against the Orioles’ starter.

Given the club’s ambitions, it was unclear how many more opportunities Kremer would get. After all, veteran lefty Cole Irvin had already been sent down for his (even worse) struggles. The leeway to sort things out at the big league level was no longer as large for the Orioles.

Had there been any other attractive internal options for Orioles GM Mike Elias to call up in Kremer’s place at the time, perhaps that would have happened. But while the Orioles have plenty of starter depth in Triple-A, that team’s not exactly packed with impact arms. Instead, they stuck with the California native, who has since seen a complete turnaround in May.

The Orioles have won all four of Kremer’s starts this month. The pitcher himself is 3-0 in decisions, tossing 23 total innings, striking out 18, walking six, and compiling a 1.96 ERA. This run of form has lowered his season ERA from 6.67 to a much more palatable 4.61, right in line with his 4.85 FIP.

The schedule has been something of a gauntlet as well: Braves, Rays, Angels, and Blue Jays. Each of them are within’s MLB’s top 12 in OPS and top 13 in runs scored. The Rays have been the best team in the league all year long, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest they have the most formidable offense. Kremer shut them out for six innings.

So, what changed? Actually, not as much as you might think.

Kremer’s pitch mix is only slightly altered month over month. The cutter usage has increased from 13.3% of all offerings in April to 18% in May. Everything else is negligible: fewer four-seamers, sweepers, and sinkers, a couple more changeups and curveballs. Nothing seismic.

It’s a similar story with velocity. His four-seamer has been a consistent 94.9 miles per hour all year while he has seen some fractional changes on his other pitches, but nothing particularly eye-opening. And the rest of the pitch characteristics are pretty much the same as well. No big alterations in spin rate to see here.

There have been some slight improvements. For example, Kremer is pitching in the zone more often (52.3% vs. 49.8%). That has helped bring his walk rate down a tad (2.35 BB/9 vs. 2.73). He’s also getting a few more ground balls (40.8% ground ball rate vs. 36.5%).

Those are good things, and he should continue to do them, but they aren’t revolutionary by any means. These facts alone aren’t responsible for a turnaround.

And therein lies the oddities of baseball. The truth is Kremer didn’t necessarily need to re-invent the wheel to get closer to the results he put up last year. He did need to be a little luckier though.

Kremer’s home run per fly ball rate in April was 18.4%. That is a preposterous number. The guy served up seven homers in only 29.2 innings. He allowed a total of 11 home runs in 125.1 innings all of 2022. He has his home run rate down to 7.4% this month, almost identical to what he did last year.

His BABIP in April was .348. It’s down to .333 in May. That’s still rather unlucky, but it’s at least closer to a number you would expect for a major league pitcher, contact-oriented or not.

You can start to see how the combination of these factors (more strikes, more ground balls, normal batted ball luck) can start to turn the tide a little bit. And for Kremer that may have saved his season.

The numbers for Kremer have started to level out, and there could be some improvement still to come. The BABIP should continue to drop (it was .299 for him last year), and the baseball gods still owe him a few more fly outs than he has gotten to this point.

But we also should not expect his end numbers to be particularly close to what we saw in 2022. The fact is he was probably pitching a little over his head for much of last season.

His 3.23 ERA in 2022 was quite a bit lower than his 4.49 xERA or 4.43 xFIP. And his 7.3% home run per fly ball rate from last season would be an excellent number for any pitcher, a challenge to repeat in 2023.

But even if he simply lives up to those expected stats, Kremer is still a useful pitcher on a competitive Orioles team. As mentioned earlier, this club in its current form is not exactly brimming with stellar contenders for a big league rotation.

Continuing to pound the strike zone and getting a little more luck should keep Kremer right in line for a start every fifth day for quite a while. That’s exactly where the Orioles want and need him right now, a stabilizing force, as they wait for Grayson Rodriguez (or perhaps an external talent) to eventually ascend to the top of the rotation.