The Orioles’ current bullpen set-up is something of a mystery. The injury to closer Félix Bautista has clouded the roles of every other member in the group, and the result has been an uneven performance in September (4.18 ERA, 0.1 fWAR).
It doesn’t seem like there is any one pitcher in the relief crew at this moment that O’s manager Brandon Hyde could point to in a crucial moment and be overly confident. Yennier Cano has struggled to miss bats (2.35 K/9) since taking on the ninth inning, Shintaro Fujinami has experienced plenty of ups and downs, Jacob Webb’s initial dominance has subsided, and Danny Coulombe has some scary peripherals (83.3% left on base, 3.00 ERA vs. 5.06 xFIP) recently.
Cionel Pérez has emerged as one of the most reliable options, looking more like the 2022 version of himself rather than he did to begin the season. The southpaw is making it work by inducing loads of ground balls (75.8% ground ball rate), avoiding home runs, and limiting the number of free passes he gives out (just one walk in his last 13 appearances). The contact-oriented approach is one that works fine with bases empty or even when only needing one out, but it can get dicey in extended outings, so it’s understandable that Hyde has protected Pérez, oftentimes asking him to pitch just part of an inning.
The element that seems to be missing from the Orioles’ pen without Bautista is the strikeout. Look at some of the dominant postseason relief performances in recent memory. The Phillies Seranthony Domínguez struck out 18 in 10.2 innings last year. Ryne Stanek sat down 11 on strikeouts in 11 innings for the 2021 Astros. Further back there was Andrew Miller striking out 30 in 19.1 innings for Cleveland in 2016. The point being that while strikeout rate isn’t the only thing, it is one of the most important. A time will come where a strikeout is required, and if Bautista remains on the shelf the O’s are short on options.
Bautista may yet be part of this team’s postseason campaign, but in what capacity is unclear. Attempting to replace Bautista and his production is a fool’s errand. No one compares to the best reliever in baseball. But if the Orioles hope to go deep into the postseason they will need someone to emerge in his place and serve as the stopper that is capable of a strikeout in a tight spot and cromulent otherwise. If you had to bet on one pitcher in the O’s bullpen right now that could meet the brief, DL Hall is starting to look like the safest pick.
Hall is trending in the right direction, starting with his velocity. Back in April, his fastball averaged 93.2 mph. Between August and September he has seen that jump to between 96.1 and 96.5 mph. All of his other offerings have seen their velocity increase in parallel. Whatever weight training he did down in Sarasota mid-season certainly seems to have paid off.
A common issue for Hall during his development has been walks. Historically, he has allowed far too many of them. Just this year in Triple-A Norfolk, he was giving up 5.51 walks per nine innings, although much of that time was spent as a starter. Now a reliever in Baltimore, that problem has disappeared. Hall has gone eight straight appearances without allowing a walk. In that same time his FIP is a minuscule 1.68.
Since being recalled in late August, Hall has thrown 13.2 innings over 15 appearances. His numbers are as follows: 12 strikeouts, four walks, 12 hits, one home run, .620 OPS against. None of those numbers should blow you away, but they do paint the picture of an above-average reliever that doesn’t beat himself. That isn’t always easy to find in a major league bullpen, let alone from a 25-year-old rookie.
Pair that competence with the fastball velocity mentioned above, plus the fact that he is a young hurler gaining experience at a rapid pace, and you just might have a late-inning weapon on your hands.
Of course, there is plenty of risk there, as has been the case for Hall throughout his minor league career. He is a high octane hurler that has a history of losing the strike zone and imploding on occasion. But he isn’t alone in that regard. Fujinami has only been an Oriole since mid-July, and he’s already had a handful of disastrous outings. Hall, to his credit, has flipped a switch and looked locked in as a big leaguer.
All that said, Hall hasn’t done enough for Hyde to make him the go-to arm in all scenarios. For example, righties are slugging .513 against him this year while lefties have struggled at .286. And although he has seen success recently, much of it has come in low-leverage, likely an intentional confidence-boosting move from the manager. It will be interesting to see if/when that is tweaked in the regular season’s final week.
The Orioles’ bullpen situation is not perfect heading into the postseason. But there are only so many strings left to pull this late in the season. In order for this team to reach its potential, it may require the manager to put some faith in a talented yet inexperienced member of the bullpen to work through the tight spots that are sure to be presented next month.