Orioles assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes affectionately refers to the bullpen as “Animal Kingdom.”
“It’s kind of how I look at it,” he said, “because everybody who goes down there turns into an animal.”
Baseball’s version of the Baltimore Zoo has posted the third-lowest ERA in the majors at 3.06 following six scoreless innings Monday and 3 2/3 last night. A collection of castoffs who reeled the Orioles back above .500 and into fourth place.
“We’ve got guys down there from trades, we’ve got guys DFA’d, we’ve got all mixes and matches down there, and these guys have really come together,” Holmes said. “They’re very focused and they work really hard, they’re good listeners. You couldn’t ask for anything better than what’s going on down there.”
“It’s been phenomenal,” said Chris Holt, who serves the dual role of pitching coach and director of pitching. “I can’t say enough about how hard they’re working, how determined they are to perform. And they have good habits with their work. They’re doing tremendous work. It’s really encouraging with everything they’re doing.”
It’s an astounding transformation, considering how the Orioles were last in bullpen ERA in 2021 at 5.70 and 2019 at 5.79, and traded Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott to the Marlins late in spring training.
The unit could have burst apart at the seams, unable to support the weight of a rotation lacking veterans with experience at consuming innings beyond Jordan Lyles. John Means was lost to elbow surgery. Closer Tyler Wells was switched back to starter and placed on strict innings and pitch limits.
How could this possibly work?
Turns out, quite smoothly. With extreme periods of dominance.
“Pleasantly surprised,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “I had no idea what our ‘pen was going to look like going into the season. We had a bunch of question marks, and all those question marks have thrown the ball outstanding.
“These guys continue to get better, they’ve been awesome for us all year long, and hopefully they can continue to pitch the way they are the last couple months.”
“I think it’s just a tribute to the guys, their character, their work ethic,” said rookie Adley Rutschman. “They show up every day and they come to the mound with a purpose. I’m very fortunate, and it’s very fun to be able to catch those guys.”
Power arms are holding together the pitching staff. Rookie Félix Bautista, 27, lives in triple digits with his fastball, and Jorge López, who recorded his 19th save last night, and Bryan Baker hit the mark over the weekend for the first time in the majors.
Left-hander Cionel Pérez constantly flirts with it. Joey Krehbiel jokes that he’s the soft tosser, and he’s in the mid-90s.
“The team closest to us going back to probably 2000, maybe a little bit last year was Tampa Bay,” Holmes said. “They’ve always had some big arms in their bullpen. But besides that, really the teams that we play, there’s three or four of them who are going to come out there at 95-98, and every now and then you’ll get guys who touch 100. But for the most part, we’ve got five guys that are 98-99, and three guys who are touching 100s now.
“It’s not a surprise to me with what they’ve done. They’ve worked really hard. Our training staff is unbelievable with keeping these guys healthy. Félix has pitched a ton, but he still goes out there, he's maintaining his velo. He’s not walking guys, his delivery is intact, and that’s a tribute to the strength and conditioning, and to our training staff. They’ve done a great job with all of our guys.
“It seems like when we’ve got two guys who are down, guys that may not be seventh inning on, they could be fifth and sixth innings, they’re coming in and getting us to that back end. Whoever we have for that day. They’ve done a good job with that.”
Holmes couldn’t have predicted that the bullpen would rate as a team strength. That Bautista, released by the Marlins in 2015, would average fewer than 3.0 walks per nine innings after he averaged 5.1 in the minors. That Baker, let go by the Blue Jays, would bring more heat. That Krehbiel, exposed to waivers by the Rays, would lower his ERA last night to 2.45 in 34 appearances after tossing 2 1/3 scoreless innings. Or that Pérez, put on waivers by the Reds, would have a 1.35 ERA in 39 games and lower his walks-per-nine innings from 7.5 last summer to 3.5.
“I think there’s a couple down there who have surprised me,” Holmes said. “Bryan Baker’s been one of them. Baker in spring training was 93-94, and every now and then a 95, and now he’s up and hitting 98 and 100. He’s worked really hard to do it. Some small tweaks in delivery stuff. He’s been a little bit of a surprise for me. Not that I didn’t think he was a good pitcher. But from a velo standpoint and a command standpoint, they were just average, and now he’s ticked above average.
“I feel real comfortable with (Dillon) Tate. Joey Krehbiel did a good job last year at the end, came back, and even though he doesn’t have the velo that he had, he still has really nasty weapons and he’s very deceptive. Félix did have a lot of high walk totals in the minor leagues. I’ve been watching him for two years on video when he was throwing in the minor leagues, but he’s come up here and I think he's become comfortable. Not meaning that he doesn’t work hard, but that he’s found out who he is and what he’s good at.
“Getting that split together, getting his fastball in the zone, was something that we worked on. We knew in spring training we were going to try to take him with us. The only thing that would have kept him is if he would have walked a ton of people in spring training, and he didn’t. We started in spring training just with some small stuff, and nothing has been big on him from a change standpoint. I think he’s got a lot of confidence in himself now.
“I think early in the season he was pretty good, but as the season went on, he continues to get better every single outing. And now he’s commanding three pitches with a fastball, slider and a split. He hasn’t walked hardly any people and he comes right at you. He’s a big, intimidating guy.”
Rutschman, a plus-defender behind the plate, said catching Bautista’s fastball is “a little different.”
“It’s got a little something on it,” he said.
And the splitter that complements it?
“It’s a really, really good pitch,” Rutschman said. “There’s a reason why he gets strikeouts on it, bad contact.”
There’s a reason why the Orioles keep hanging around the wild card race.
It’s beyond the fences in most ballparks, hidden behind the ivy-covered wall for three games at Wrigley Field.
It’s where the animals roam.
“Surprising, no,” said outfielder Ryan McKenna, swimming against the tide. “I know all these guys come to the field and they compete every day and they’re working their butts off. They’re all very talented pitchers and they’re getting the most out of what they’re doing right now. The ERA just shows the work that they’ve put in, the dedication, just the whole thing with Holty and Holmey. They’re doing really well with them.
“The innings, obviously you want to balance them and take some weight off where you can. If somebody’s been pitching a lot, you try to lean on some of the other guys, and they’ve all been picking each other up. It’s been a great dynamic. So, I’m not surprised.”