For Orioles right-hander Kyle Bradish, who pitched like an ace during the 2023 season, a key start along the way to doing that came on the West Coast in early June. He faced the San Francisco Giants. He would last just four innings and allow seven hits and three runs.
It was not a terrible start, but a short one, and it left Bradish with a 4.13 ERA after his first 10 starts of the season. Not a bad ERA at all, but it would get a lot better for him after that outing against the Giants.
“I'd say kind of the turning point was my outing in San Francisco," Bradish said before his start in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. "I had a rough inning and then got taken out in the fourth, and kind of there had a mindset shift. Just knowing that I can't keep doing that. It's hurting the bullpen, hurting the team. Just going out there, working for a quality start every time was kind of the mindset after that.”
The results that followed that start were stunning.
Over his last 20 games, he went 10-5 with a 2.31 ERA, a .191 batting average against, a .548 OPS allowed and 0.92 WHIP.
This guy was really good for the Orioles in the 2023 season with the numbers to show for it. He should get some down-ballot votes for the AL Cy Young Award. It would come as a shock if he were to actually win it, but he should finish in the top five in the voting, or in the top 10 at least.
For the year, he went 12-7 with a 2.83 ERA over 168 2/3 innings, allowed just 14 homers, had a 2.3 walk rate, a 9.0 strikeout rate and 1.043 WHIP.
Bradish, who had a 16-inning scoreless streak to end the regular season, became the first qualified O's pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA since Mike Mussina posted a 2.54 ERA in 1992. That is qualified for league leaders with one inning pitched per team game, so 162 for the year.
He ended 2023 third in the AL in ERA and fourth in the majors behind only Blake Snell of San Diego (2.25), Gerrit Cole of the Yankees (2.63) and Sonny Gray of Minnesota (2.79).
Bradish was second in the AL in opponent batting average (.215) and OPS (.605), tied for third in WHIP, was fifth in FIP (3.26), tied for seventh with 18 quality starts and 10th in swing-and-miss percentage (26.1).
Bradish has proven to have a special combination of pitches, featuring a two-seam fastball that he can use to get ground balls and bust right-handed hitters in, along with two outstanding breaking pitches he can throw outside to get swings and misses.
Run value is a metric that tries to determine the quality of a pitch, and Bradish scores very high here for both his slider and curveball. This year he allowed just a .272 slugging percentage off his slider with a 36.4 whiff rate, and a .165 slugging off his curveball with a 35.6 percent whiff rate.
Before he faced Texas in Game 1 of the ALDS, Bradish said those two pitches were good all year.
“It's this whole season," he said. "After that first month, where we kind of started relying on those heavier, they've kind of grown - as well as have I as a pitcher - and they just play off of each other. They're both hard, but my slider goes one direction, and the curveball is 12-6. So that helps keep hitters kind of off balance.”
It sure did in 2023 for Bradish.
He pitched like an ace, and with his drive and that strong pitch mix, you have to like his chances to pitch this well again. He’s not a huge strikeout guy, but he’s got enough swing-and-miss in his repertoire and he also ranks among the best pitchers in getting ground balls because of the sinker. His homer rate of 0.75 per nine innings ranked second in the AL among qualifying pitchers.
There is just a lot to like here. Bradish ended his year allowing two earned runs or fewer in nine of his last 10 regular-season starts, pitching to a 1.87 ERA in that span. He gave up two earned runs or fewer in 21 of his 30 starts.
After throwing 173 2/3 innings in 2023 - which was 28 1/3 more than the previous year - Bradish is now set up to chase a 200-inning season in 2024. Right now he's at the top of an improving Baltimore rotation, and he may have the stuff to stay there a while.