If there’s something Mike Elias & Co. love more than anything, it’s a pitching makeover: unearthing a struggling pitcher whose peripherals show some kind of hidden value, figuring out what mechanical tweaks and refined pitch mix could accomplish that, and then watching their candidates deliver.
Into that “Hey, this guy’s better than I thought!” basket, you can put John Means in 2021, along with Cole Sulser, Chris Ellis and Dillon Tate. In 2022, you had breakout stars Cionel Pérez, Félix Bautista, Austin Voth and Dean Kremer. This year, La Roca has joined La Montaña at the back of the bullpen, Tyler Wells is newly a strikeout machine, a resurgent Kyle Gibson is (somewhat) stabilizing the rotation and, in case you forgot him (it’s easy to forget him) there’s Danny Coulombe.
Thirty-three years old and balding, clocking in at a whopping 5’10”, 190 pounds, Danny Coulombe does not fit the mold of the dashing athlete-as-physical-specimen. His fastball averages 91.5 mph and he depends on deception to be effective. Nor, until this year, was Coulombe actually all THAT great a ball player. Drafted by the Dodgers in the 25th round in 2012, Coulombe bounced around teams for nine years, putting up just-okay numbers. Which made it somewhat perplexing when Baltimore signed him for cash considerations in March after things didn’t work out with Rule 5 guy Andrew Politi. CC’s reasoned take on the move was this:
[In nine seasons, Coulombe] has thrown more than 50 innings just one time … and only has two seasons where he both pitched more than a trivial amount of games and could be said to have been a good pitcher overall. His 2022 season was cut short after only ten games pitched due to an injury that required surgery on his left hip labrum.
For Coulombe’s career, he has a 3.90 ERA, which is not very good for a reliever.
For this entire stretch, Coulombe was essentially an expendable fringe player. LA cut him after just 10 games, Minnesota after 41. The Yankees signed him to a free agent deal in 2019, then released him without his having ever pitched a game for them. Same with the Brewers.
One sort-of overlooked thing about Coulombe is that, as little as his playing time has been, his stats have gotten continually better over his career. His ERA+ (where 100 = an average player) has evolved from bad (60 with LAD in 2014-15) to average (102 with OAK in 2015-18) to pretty-good (145 with MIN in 2020-22) and unexpectedly (or not, if you’re been reading thus far), excellent this season with Baltimore, at 212.
Was this what Elias and Co were looking at when they signed him? It’s possible. That or his 85th-percentile fastball spin.
What is different about Coulombe this year? Lots.
One thing is the pitch mix. This guy has tinkered with his offerings (or been tinkered with) since he’s been in the big leagues. You can see that in this chart below. It’s messier than most pitchers’. Check out the swing from 2022 to 23. Many changes. The Orioles have elevated the Coulombe slider to his main pitch (46%). They’ve thrown the sweeper, a pitch he only developed in 2022, more heavily into the mix, too (21%). They’ve encouraged him to use his heater as something more of an accessory—a putaway pitch, set up by his breaking stuff. Coulombe’s curveball, once his No. 1 pitch, is now way down in the mix.
Not only that, but there’s evidence of mechanical changes, too. Coulombe’s sweeper is a completely different pitch: it gained 10 inches in vertical drop from last year to now, which now makes it a sizzling-red standout pitch, according to BaseballSavant. Coulombe’s sinker spin is also up by 100 RPM since last year and his fastball spin is up by 80 RPM. Here he is, making the Rays look foolish with these new offerings:
Danny Coulombe, Wicked Breaking Balls. pic.twitter.com/cmfEYk6AjX— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 11, 2023
It’s hard to compare Coulombe’s old and new bodies of work because he’s such a different pitcher. But let’s try. In 2017, he appeared in 72 games and put up a 3.48 ERA. To date, it was the only full season of work he’s had: he’s never appeared in more than 35 games before or since (so far, he’s at 27 for Baltimore). And it was one of his best.
But so far, Coulombe is eclipsing that season in pitch quality and results. Here are Coulombe’s BaseballSavant Percentile Rankings for 2017 and 2023. About the only thing that’s stayed the same is the fastball velocity.
Coulombe will undoubtedly drop back down to earth at some point, but with this superlative batted ball data, it’s easier to think he won’t turn completely into a pumpkin. The quality of his pitches is just different. And he’s allowing some of the weakest contact in the league right now.
One more measure of his value: time and again, Coulombe has been brought in to wriggle out of others’ bases-loaded jams. In fact, Coulombe has faced more batters in high-leverage situations than either medium- or low-. The only other Orioles pitchers for whom this is true: Cano and Bautista. Brandon Hyde makes his trust levels very clear.
Coulombe is costing the team $1 million a year (more than all the pre-arbitration youngsters, but still $13 million less than Chris Davis is taking home). With Mychal Givens and Dillon Tate injured, Coulombe has stepped up and added massive value as a set-up man in the bullpen. In this sense, he’s been a steal. I guess if there’s something Mike Elias & Co. love more than anything, it’s finding a bargain.