The Orioles bullpen is off to a surprising start through six weeks of the season. A group that was near the middle of the pack by most measurements in 2020 now finds itself near the top of MLB in those same categories in 2021.
Those numbers could largely be credited to the suddenly-dominant Cesar Valdez, who has established himself as one of the American League’s top closers. But looking past him, there are three other prominent bullpen arms with encouraging starts to the season leading the way for one of the AL’s best ‘pens.
Paul Fry may be the most noticeable contributor to the staff’s successes. Fry leads all O’s relievers with a career-best 1.26 ERA, as he’s turned himself into one of the few trusted high-leverage arms. With Tanner Scott struggling to find his command in recent outings, Fry has also become the top left-handed option out of the bullpen.
This season, Fry has been one of baseball’s best relievers at avoiding bats. His hard-hit rate of 13.3 percent is best among all AL pitchers, his barreled ball rate ranks in the 96th percentile and his sweet spot rate is a career-low 20 percent.
One specific area of improvement has been his fastball. He’s throwing it more frequently this season and with more velocity. The average speed of the pitch increased over two miles per hour from 90.7 in 2019 to 92.8 in 2020, and it’s jumped again to 93.4 this year. The uptick in velocity as well as spin rate has led to an 11 point increase in his whiff rate on the pitch, from 15.6 percent in 2020 to 26.8 this season.
The question for any Orioles veteran that begins to play well is the likelihood of a trade. With Fry, it’s certainly a possibility. At 28 years old and with three more years (after 2021) of team control, the team may view him as a building block moving forward. He and Scott could form a solid duo of high-leverage lefties for years to come. Then again, a left-handed reliever with a habit of missing bats like Fry will undoubtedly be in high demand from contenders come the July trade deadline.
Speaking of trades, Adam Plutko was acquired less than a week before Opening Day and has given the Orioles bullpen much needed length. O’s starters not named John Means’ outings last less than five innings on average, leading to the seventh most innings pitched from relievers this season (140.2).
Plutko has typically been used in those exact situations, and he’s been one of the AL’s best long men. His 20.1 innings pitched leads the O’s bullpen by a wide margin, and is the third highest mark in MLB. Only one AL reliever, Oakland’s Yusmeiro Petit, has thrown more innings with a lower ERA than Plutko’s 1.33.
Like Fry, Plutko has also excelled at missing barrels. His 8.9 percent line drive rate is third best among AL relievers, and his 31.6 percent hard hit rate is the lowest of his career (which spans back to 2016).
Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde spoke at length before the season on the need for length out of both the rotation and the bullpen to successfully get through 162 games. While they haven’t gotten much of that from their starters, Plutko has been able to pick up some of the slack in relief.
Perhaps the most surprising contributor is Cole Sulser. His days of closing out tight games in the early weeks of the 2020 season are long gone, but he’s bounced back and become one of the best strikeout pitchers in the league.
Sulser’s strikeout rate of 42.6 is an astonishing fourth best in MLB, and he’s one of only seven relievers league wide with a 100 percent left on base rate. He’s become one of Hyde’s most trusted options to get out of middle-inning jams.
That 42.6 mark blows away his previous career high of 31 percent set in 2019 with Tampa Bay. So it’s fair to ask the question, how is he doing it?
First, you can look at the usage of each of his pitches. While Sulser aimed to be a three-pitch guy last season, he’s generally stayed away from his slider and committed mostly to his fastball and change-up in 2021. In focusing more on the change-up, it’s allowed the pitch to become the best it’s ever been. Vertical movement on the pitch has increased from 27.1 to 33.4 inches of drop. While it may not seem like much, that 2020 number was 11 percent below league average while this season’s sits at four percent above league average. The increase in movement on the change-up has led to improvements in several key metrics.
Another encouraging sign is that Sulser’s walks are way down, falling from a 17 percent rate that ranked in the third percentile to just a 2.1 percent rate now in the 97th percentile.Are these good of strikeout and walk rates unsustainable? Maybe. But for now, Sulser has become the pitcher the Orioles thought was worth a waiver claim a year ago.