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The only thing that can spoil Bradish’s coming-out party are hanging breaking balls

The right hander has some of the best breaking stuff in MLB. Last night, Tampa Bay took advantage of his leaving it up high, where it can be hit.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

This week, a rare thing happened: The Athletic published a piece extolling an Orioles pitcher, specifically 27-year-old right hander Kyle Bradish and his 2023 breakout. Look, I’d rather Dan Connolly have kept his job, but it was nice.

The point of the piece was explaining Bradish’s turnaround from June 2022, when he had an ERA of 7.38 and was about to hit the IL with shoulder inflammation, and where he is now, the ace of an O’s team with the American League’s best record. Entering Thursday night, Bradish had the fifth-best ERA in baseball (he’d end the night having given up four runs, but that ERA didn’t move very much), a top-ten WHIP and a top-fifteen 3.8 WAR.

What were the missing ingredients in his rookie season? “Confidence,” Bradish told The Athletic. “It’s not really spoken of in this game. But it’s a big thing. It can get taken away from you really quick, and that’s what happened.”

That, and also a new sinker and a new delivery. According to the piece, while on the IL last summer Bradish started working on a new sinker, a piece he now throws 20% of the time, compared to 4% last year. He also changed his mechanics. He now throws less over the top, has moved closer to the first-base side of the rubber, and keeps his gaze on the plate longer. He’s also abandoned a full wind-up, now pitching almost exclusively out the stretch (this appears to be a larger trend among pitchers). All this has helped make him more consistent, and more deceptive.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a homer, and I can eat up puff pieces on the Orioles like candy. But despite his meteoric breakout, Bradish’s fastball still has a .375 batting average against and .675 slugging. And after Thursday night’s loss against the Rays, where he allowed four runs on seven hits and threw 16 fastballs which produced zero whiffs, it’s worth asking why, and whether he’s still using the pitch too much.

As a youngster, Bradish was a fastball pitcher, and this isn’t atypical. Getting minor league hitters out with fastballs is easier, and most MLB pitchers make the adjustment. In fact, back in May Tom Verducci reported that whereas MLB pitchers threw 58.4% fastballs in 2009, this year it’s down to 46.9%. It’s not just strain on ligaments that explains the drop. It’s that spin has way outpaced speed in terms of elusiveness. According to Verducci, today’s breaking pitches have become so nasty that this year, a run-of-the-mill slider is tougher to hit (.218) than a fastball at 99 mph and above (.232).

This is true for Bradish, only the gap is much more dramatic. His slider has the fourth-best run value by any starter (+11) (only Jon Gray, Clayton Kershaw and Spencer Strider are bettering it). But for a starter, his four-seam fastball (-9) is among MLB’s twenty worst. Twenty worst! That’s in company like the Angels’ Jaime Barría and the Diamondbacks’ Brandon Pfaadt. One fortunate difference: he uses it much less than those middle-of-the-pack pitchers because he has other tools. In 2022, Bradish threw his fastball 44.5%% of the time. This year, he’s cut that rate almost in half (23.8%).

Unfortunately, that hasn’t made the pitch better: batters are averaging 50 points higher against the Bradish heater than last year. Is this cause for concern? Yes and no, and mostly no.

It’s a story of tradeoffs, and Bradish and O’s pitching coaches seem to be opting for the right ones. The righty’s best pitch, the slider, is now his most common. Meanwhile, the lost Bradish fastballs are being partly made up with a sinker, a two-seam fastball with more cut and similar velocity, a pitch that has seen improvement in 2023, namely a .232 batting average compared to .286 in 2022.


The formula, in short: Replace four-seamers with sinkers, and bombard hitters with sliders. It’s working. Bradish’s results have been unquestionably better overall. Fewer hits, home runs, and more strikeouts.


So what about last night’s loss to Tampa Bay? Well, first off, the results (seven hits, five strikeouts, and zero walks in six and two-thirds innings) seem worse than they were because the offense is slumping. Secondly, this result was something of an outlier for Bradish, because it turns out all the Rays’ hits came on breaking balls. Brandon Lowe singled in their first run on a curveball. Randy Arozarena tripled off a high sinker. And Luke Raley hit the game-winner on a slider. Of the four other hits Bradish allowed, none came on the fastball, either.

This is weird, as well, because, as MLB just reported in yet another piece on the right-hander, Bradish’s breaking pitches are some of the best in MLB, period. He ranks second among all starters in wOBA on breaking balls and first in run value. Last night? He hung some breaking pitches, that’s pretty much it. The result was unfortunate, but the fortunate thing is, it’s something he almost never does.

Anyway, I don’t mean to sound unappreciative. Going by WAR, Bradish’s 2023 is already the best season by an Orioles pitcher since Zack Britton’s ridiculous 2016 campaign. But if the Orioles are to get into the playoffs—or even to go deep in them—the competition will only get better and better at tagging anything Bradish leaves up in the strike zone for them. This no-longer-under-the-radar playoff contender needs the best version of their no-longer-under-the-radar ace this month.