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The Orioles Have Once Again Patched Together a Pitching Staff

Much like last year, the Orioles are getting strong contributions from obscure players on the mound, especially in relief.

The Baltimore Orioles are riding high at the beginning of May, as the team is 19-9, third best in MLB. The offense is firing on most (but not all) cylinders in the early going, as they are ninth in runs, up from 20th in 2022. There have been key contributions up and down the lineup, giving the Birds enough runs to win late in games.

The pitching staff has been able to hold those leads, en route to one of the best starts in team history. The starting rotation, though, is still a work in progress. They have settled down after a dreadful first week of the season, but the talented arms have been fighting their location lately. SP Kyle Gibson has been better than expected and the rest of the current rotation have shown what they are capable of, but long innings and mid-game meltdowns have left Manager Brandon Hyde to scramble often.

While the Orioles optioned SP Cole Irvin and might do the same to SP Dean Kremer, the good news is that SP Tyler Wells has proven his worth as a starter, and SP Grayson Rodriguez is showing he can play in the Majors. After an encouraging first start, GrayRod looks more comfortable with each outing and pitched his best so far last time out.

But the real showstopping performances have come out of the bullpen, as the Orioles continue to produce quality relievers. As Ben Clemens of FanGraphs observed, the O’s are now one of the enviable teams that can turn nobodies into shutdown arms overnight. Let’s start with the familiar faces before meeting the newcomers.

The Holdovers

CP Felix Bautista was last year’s breakout star. After toiling in the minors with unplayable command problems, he found the zone often enough to be an elite closer. His triple-digit fastball and low-90s splitter are still working in 2023, as he looks just as good–if not better–than in 2022. Bautista has a 1.32 ERA and a 2.22 FIP, both of which are lower than last year. He has struck out an eye-popping 25 batters in 13.2 innings. His command still lapses at times, but there is no need to worry here.

RP Bryan Baker is also looking better than last year, as his four seamer and slider are playing up. He is pitching with confidence and locating better, leading to a 1.88 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. As I have noted elsewhere, Baker was one of the few Orioles pitchers who underperformed his FIP in 2022, so his luck is turning around now.

On the downside, there is real concern regarding RP Cionel Perez, who looks nothing like the shutdown lefty from a season ago. Of course, his 1.40 ERA wasn’t repeatable, but it has ballooned to 5.23, and his FIP is up more than a run, as well. His peripherals are going in the wrong direction, as his K-rate is down 6% while his walk rate is up 4%. The main issue seems to be a lack of swings and misses, as his whiff rate is down in the 3rd percentile, all the way from the 62nd last year.

The Newcomers

After RP Jorge Lopez broke out as a full-time reliever, the Orioles traded him at the 2022 deadline. While the move was disheartening to fans, it is already paying dividends. One of the four players the O’s got from the Minnesota Twins was RP Yennier Cano. He seemed like a throw-in piece, but the 29-year-old has emerged as the latest success story.

After tweaking his release point, Cano looks like the best reliever in baseball right now. That is no exaggeration: Cano has faced 33 batters this year, and he has retired 32 of them. Using a tank of a sinker and a mimicking changeup, Cano repeatedly fools hitters. He has a 36.4% strikeout rate and a 70% groundball rate. Hitters just don’t know what to do against him.

I was disappointed when the Orioles sent Rule 5 pick RP Andrew Politi back to the Boston Red Sox before Opening Day, but they got someone better instead. On March 28, the same day, they acquired RP Danny Coulombe from the Twins. Coulombe has quickly become the lefty of choice out of the bullpen, with a 0.84 ERA in 10.2 innings. Even the one run he allowed was inherited. No one finishes a full season with an ERA that low, but his FIP is still a sparkling 1.89 since he has a 14:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has not allowed a homer.

Coulombe’s Statcast percentiles agree that he is pitching like an elite reliever. Most of them are close to the 100th percentile, and the lowest is the 72nd. Coulombe is limiting hard contact by throwing his slider 54.2% of the time, up from 21.3% last year. The pitch’s velocity is up 2.9 MPH, meaning hitters have less time to react to it. His average exit velocity is a miniscule 80.6 MPH.

The Convert

The last player worth highlighting fits in the middle space of a Venn diagram where holdovers and newcomers meet. RP Mike Baumann was an Orioles third-round pick back in 2017 and came up through the system as a starter. After struggling to establish himself the last two years, he has converted full-time to relief and looks like a new man on the mound. Big Mike has a 1.15 ERA in 15.2 innings with a respectable 3.39 FIP.

Baumann is benefitting from great batted ball luck with a .194 BABIP and a scary 90.8 average exit velocity. But he has come through in the clutch and gotten the Orioles out of some tough jams. His curveball is a little harder than last year with less movement, and he now throws it more often than his slider. He has clearly moved up in the pecking order and Brandon Hyde trusts him more than some other guys hanging around.

The Orioles cannot keep outperforming the metrics forever, but it is safe to say that the team will have a new batch of pitchers ready when that happens. Wait until RPs Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens return.

All stats are through Monday, May 1.

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