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Kyle Bradish is pitching like the ace that the Orioles desperately needed

The righty has transformed from a relief prospect to the top starter on the AL-leading O’s.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Orioles did buy at the trade deadline two weeks ago, they stopped short of adding a surefire ace. Instead, they opted for complementary pieces for a team already on a 100-win pace. While that was certainly underwhelming for many, it also clarified what was long-thought to be the club’s thesis: They will go as far as their in-house talent takes them, including in the rotation. That’s where Kyle Bradish comes in.

Bradish is not entirely “home grown,” but he’s close. Drafted by the Angels in 2018, the righty moved to the Orioles organization in December of 2019 as part of the Dylan Bundy trade.

At the time, Bradish was pegged as a future reliever by many in the industry. But as the Orioles worked with him, he kept on starting and he kept on getting results. In 2021 he struck out 131 in 100.1 innings across Bowie and Norfolk. In 2022, he began the year on fire with Norfolk, which earned him a big league call. And that’s where he hit a road block.

Through his first 10 starts with the Orioles opponents had a .967 OPS against, he allowed 11 home runs, and had an ERA of 7.38. Suddenly, the reliever prognosis appeared to be back on the table. But he kept tinkering.

As explained in this article on FanGraphs, Bradish went on the IL after his early struggles last year, and when he came back he unleashed a new toy: his sinker. The pitch was not overly dominant on its own, but it played well with his other offerings and enhanced their effectiveness. He made 13 starts between late July and the end of the season. In that time he had a 3.28 ERA/3.73 FIP and opponents OPS’ed just .607.

That sinker is back this year, and it’s now part of a five-pitch mix that seems to have the entire league off balance. Apart from a poor month of April, which was disrupted by an injury in his first start of the year, Bradish has been incredible. Since the start of May he has a 2.78 ERA, .215 batting average against, and .611 OPS against over 107 innings.

It’s not fluky either. Bradish is legitimately nasty. His 124 Stuff+ is third-best among qualified pitchers this season, right behind Spencer Strider and just ahead of Corbin Burnes, Gerrit Cole, and Shohei Ohtani. On at least that one data point, the Orioles already have an elite starter on board.

Bradish’s outings are ace-like even beyond the quality of his pitches. He also provides length. Between May 12 and this writing, he’s made 17 starts, 12 have lasted six innings or longer. And of the 22 starts he has made all season, he has allowed three or fewer runs in 19 of them. It’s almost a guarantee that if Bradish pitches, the Orioles are going to be in position to win the game.

There simply aren’t many holes you can poke into his game. His 3.18 ERA and 3.66 FIP aren’t world’s apart. His .280 BABIP is perhaps a tad low considering the type of contact he allows, but nothing ridiculous. The New Mexico State product has simply taken a leap forward. He’s limiting walks more (from 3.52 BB/9 in ‘22 to 2.52 BB/9 in ‘23) and serving up fewer homers (1.30 HR/9 to 0.89 HR/9) while maintaining a solid strikeout rate (8.43 K/9), above-average velocities, and a pitch mix that confounds the opposition.

The only concern could be something that impacts most of the rotation. How many innings can they throw? The team has already seen Tyler Wells experience some regression—and ultimately a demotion—that may be related to workload. The club’s recent move to a six-man rotation should help to quell those worries overall.

The most Bradish has even thrown in a professional season was 2022, when he tossed 145.1 innings between Baltimore and Norfolk. Right now he sits on 126.2 combined between his big league work and the lone rehab start he made in Bowie.

Conservatively, we can estimate that Bradish will make at least seven more starts in the regular reason. That tacks on 35+ innings of work before the postseason even rolls around. Jumping from 145.1 to 160-170-ish feels reasonable for a pitcher that will be 27 years old by season’s end. That total will shoot much higher if Bradish is deemed the Orioles’ game one starter in October, an honor he has earned with his performance this season.

The consistency with which Bradish has pitched for the Orioles this season is unfamiliar in these parts. This is an organization that has gotten used to flashes in the pan mixed with utter disasters on the mound. That has become the expectation for top prospects and free agents alike. So for a player to take the path that he has from relatively unknown prospect with a reliever outlook to the top starting pitcher on the AL’s best team is difficult to process.

Bradish’s breakout this year does not remove the need for the Orioles to add high-end talent to their rotation this winter, but it does put the unit on far better footing moving forward. More importantly, it gives this tremendous 2023 team a worthy option to face off with some of the game’s biggest arms this fall.