Sulser injured his right foot in a freakish accident that he believes led to inconsistencies in his delivery and mechanics, and the eventual loss of his job as closer. He averaged 6.8 walks per nine innings, compared to 2.7 over six minor league seasons.
So what happened to Sulser, who made his first opening day roster and topped the Orioles with five saves - none after Aug. 15?
“I ended up fracturing and spraining some toes on my right foot,” Sulser said yesterday from his home in Southern California, where he’s been engaged in his usual workout, conditioning and throwing programs. “Just bad luck. I wish there was a better story or anything like that. I was honestly in my apartment and unfortunately was walking by my bed and I ended up kicking my bed frame by accident, and basically the bed frame post went in between a couple toes and fractured one of my toe joints and sprained some others and stuff. Just some unfortunate bad luck.
“It was a heck of a time to have it happen where it was more severe impact than usual. We’ve all stubbed our toe before and it never feels too good and I was hoping it was going to be just a little bit bruised up, but it turned out to be a little more impactful than I originally thought.”
Sulser had five saves, a 3.46 ERA and a .116 average against in his first 10 outings and an 8.38 ERA with a .316 average against in his last nine. He walked three batters on Aug. 22 and 30.
“It was something I felt like at the time I could pitch through,” said Sulser, the only reliever in the majors to record two saves of two-plus innings.
“Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, I feel like maybe it affected things more than I thought, especially when it came to the consistency in my delivery and how I’m usually able to command the zone better. So that was the big thing for me. It’s not like I suffered a major dip in velocity or anything like that, but I felt more inconsistent with my pitches, definitely had a much higher walk rate.
“In the middle of the season, my walks really spiked after that, so that was the major thing.”
The injury apparently removes the mystery behind Sulser’s wildness - or so he hopes - and the need to overhaul or tweak his delivery.
“That’s what I feel like,” he said. “I felt really good at the beginning of the season, and when that happened in the middle of the season, I definitely know my walk rate really shot up there for a couple weeks. So I feel like it’s something that’s definitely controllable. I feel like historically I’ve been a guy who attacks hitters much better than I did last year, and so that’s the main thing I’m looking to do is just kind of get back to that.
“I feel good and healthy now, so I think maintaining my delivery and feeling back to my normal self. I’m excited to get back out there and show again what I can do.”
Trying to close in the majors didn’t become too much of a burden for Sulser, a theory that he knew had been floated.
“I didn’t really feel like it,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, it was a different role in the major leagues than I’ve ever had before. Of course, there’s always going to be a little bit of a learning curve, but I felt comfortable in leverage situations and I feel like I can pitch in those situations. I think more it was I started trying to overcompensate a little bit for not feeling 100 percent physically and that led to some of the issues I had controlling the zone.”
Manager Brandon Hyde decided to remove Sulser from the final inning, the right-hander’s last four appearances coming in the sixth, fourth, fifth and seventh. But he never gave the impression that he lost faith.
“I still believe in his stuff,” Hyde said in September. “Still believe in the maturity and the makeup of the guy.”
“You can’t ask for more than that,” said Sulser, a waiver claim from the Rays on Oct. 1, 2019. “When you’re going through a rough time, it’s always so much better to know the coaches have your back and the team has your back, and it makes you feel more comfortable and makes it easier to work through it.
“I can’t thank them him enough. It was handled great. I was a great feeling for me to know that even when I wasn’t perfect out there, I never really lost confidence and I felt like I could contribute and help the team win.”
* The tracking of Yasiel Puig’s journey through free agency inevitably leads back to the Orioles due to their previous interest in him. As if the past is destined to repeat itself.
I can only repeat what I passed along last month.
The team made an offer in July 2020 because Trey Mancini was going to miss the truncated season while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. were late reporting to summer training camp after testing positive for COVID-19. Ryan Mountcastle was headed to the alternate camp site in Bowie, removing him as an option.
Mancini is working out and expected to be ready for spring training, though more likely to play first base. Santander and Smith made it onto the opening day roster, with the former voted Most Valuable Oriole and chosen as a Gold Glove finalist in right. Mountcastle debuted on Aug. 21, proved that he belonged and is projected as the starter in left.
Smith became a free agent and signed with the Reds, but the Orioles have an abundance of outfielders.
Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins should be on the opening day roster if they’re healthy. DJ Stewart remains in the mix. Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna are expected to debut later in the summer after beginning the season with Triple-A Norfolk. Chris Shaw is a waiver claim who’s on the 40-man roster.
Puig isn’t a fit in 2021, particularly in a rebuild, unless something changes and the Orioles embark on another search for an outfielder. They’ll keep him in mind as circumstances evolve.
The only way to make sense of it now is to view Puig as a possible replacement for Renato Núñez at designated hitter. But again, the Orioles had cooled on the idea of signing him last month, according to a source. So keep it in mind when they’re again linked to him.
* Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper reported yesterday that the Double-A and Single-A seasons will be delayed. Major League Baseball sent a memo to the clubs.
“MLB told minor league teams that spring training for Double-A and Class A players will not begin until MLB and Triple-A players have departed from spring training,” Cooper wrote. “The delay will allow for more social distancing during a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the world.”
A normal spring schedule on the major league side would push the start of the Double-A and Single-A seasons to May.
The memo also informed teams to expect their seasons to run as late as Oct. 3, a month longer than usual, according to Cooper
The Triple-A season thus far hasn’t been impacted, though it’s possible later with so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
Update: To clear up the confusion, the Orioles knew about Sulser’s injury. He wasn’t hiding it. They supported his attempts to pitch through it. And he didn’t really notice the mechanical inconsistencies until later.