The big man with a big arm had a big year for the Orioles

These stats seem pretty good. And probably just about any pitcher would take such numbers.

* Top three percent of Major League Baseball in strikeout percentage.

* Top one percent in velocity.

* Top eight percent in whiff percentage and expected slugging against.

* Ranks 10th in the American League in ERA among pitchers throwing 60 or more innings.

* Ranks third in AL in strikeouts per nine innings among that same group of pitchers.

By now you likely know we are talking about Orioles' flamethrowing reliever Félix Bautista. He posted big stats this year and is no longer the big guy with the big arm but little control. Somewhere along the line from 2021 to 2022, he harnessed enough command and control to be a dominant reliever.

One who, as a 2022 rookie, took over the O’s closer role after the Jorge López trade and kept rolling. The eighth inning, the ninth inning, it didn’t matter. He was good in both.

Late in the year he wore down a bit and missed a few games due to arm fatigue. He missed the final few games with left knee discomfort. But before that he put together a better year than anyone had a right to expect.

He went 4-4 with a 2.19 ERA and 15 saves in 17 chances. Over 65 2/3 innings he allowed just 38 hits and 0.929 WHIP. He gave up just 5.2 hits per nine and 1.0 homers with 3.2 walks and 12.1 strikeouts. Lefty batters had a .523 OPS against him and right-handers were at .541. He had a 9.1 walk percentage and 34.8 strikeout percentage. At home his ERA was 2.58, and on the road it was 1.65.

So yeah, pretty good from start to finish by almost any measure.

In his first save chance after the López trade, Aug. 8 versus Pittsburgh, he saved a 1-0 win. He threw 17 fastballs, and all 17 were 100 mph or more. Five were at 101 plus, and one pitch registered 102 mph. Remarkable.

“Think a lot of it is emotion-based and adrenaline-based," Bautista said that night. "In a moment like that, the adrenaline was really ticking, and that helped get the velo up a little bit.”

As early as April, O’s manager Brandon Hyde was seeing the potential for Bautista to do special things. And he noted then how Bautista pitched at three levels of Orioles' minor league system in 2021 and was a player development success story.

“Absolutely. And he is a great story, and hats off to our player development people for getting him to be able to pitch in big spots in the big leagues right now," Hyde said then. "It’s fun to watch him. He’s a great kid. He’s fun to be around and everybody likes him. He throws 99 also, which helps, with a really good split. I’m enjoying watching him have success and I’ll continue to throw him out there in big parts of games.”

Bautista ended his ’21 season with a 4.4 walk rate at Triple-A, and that was actually much improved from earlier in his year and in his career. Whatever gains he made then carried over into the majors, and he even bettered that number this season.

“They put a large emphasis on working on my command and the overall control of my pitches,” Bautista said of his 2021 season on the O’s farm. “Just trying to get me ready to throw first-pitch strikes. That was a big point of emphasis for me and that helped out a ton. And obviously, controlling my emotions. Not trying to overthrow certain pitches. That has been really helpful for me so far this season.”

Bautista ranked seventh among major league pitchers in 2022 average velocity:

100.8 – Jhoan Duran, Minnesota
100.2 – Andrés Muñoz, Seattle
100.1 – Jordan Hicks, St. Louis
99.9 – Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland
99.6 – Ryan Helsley, St. Louis
99.4 – Brusdar Graterol, Los Angeles Dodgers
99.2 – Félix Bautista, Orioles

Bautista threw 203 pitches 100 mph or more last season, sixth-most in the majors.

He also had a whiff rate on his splitter of 52.9 percent, which was third-best in baseball on that pitch. It’s become a devastating pitch for him. Moving forward there seems little reason Bautista can’t come up big in the late innings for the Orioles again. We have to see how he would handle an extended slump of several games or weeks, if he ever has one.

One thing that could help him continue to be a top pitcher is further use of his slider. While he threw his four-seam fastball 61 percent and his splitter 26 percent, he only used his slider 13 percent. That usage could go up to give him another weapon. The pitch produced a strong 42.5 whiff rate and could give hitters something else to think about.

The 2022 season was a remarkable one for this pitcher. The Marlins released him in 2015, and he once spent four straight years in the Dominican Summer League. Last year was his seventh season in the O’s organization. They decided not to give up on him, and that was a big and correct decision.

Now we await what comes next for the likable right-hander they call “The Mountain.”

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