Rays’ loss is O’s gain in the bullpen

He has had not one, but two Tommy John surgeries and pitched in the minor leagues since 2013 before finally getting his first big league chance last September. It went well for Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Cole Sulser. After a very strong finish to his Triple-A season, he made his big league debut that month with 7 1/3 scoreless innings and nine strikeouts for the Rays.

Then he was designated for assignment.

That might have been a bit surprising, even for the pitching-rich Rays. Sulser can throw 94 mph, and after last June 30, he was 3-0 with an ERA of 1.07 at Triple-A Durham. In 33 2/3 innings, he walked five and fanned 49. Strong finish and then seven scoreless games in the bigs.

But the 30-year-old right-hander, who had elbow procedures in both 2012 and 2015, was headed for his third organization. Drafted by Cleveland in round 25 of 2013 out of Dartmouth, he was traded to the Rays in December 2018. The Orioles claimed him off waivers Oct. 1 after he was designated for assignment. He was the first offseason edition following the 2019 season.

“I think what I can bring to the table, at least what I think my strengths are, is hopefully the ability to throw strikes, attack hitters and I have some experience, just in terms of playing minor league baseball and professional baseball for so long,” Sulser said during a Zoom interview yesterday. “Being able to go out there and compete every day and be a guy that is going to attack the zone and try to make hitters earn their way on base. That is what I think I do well.”

For the full season at Triple-A last year, he was 6-3 with a 3.27 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. He had a 3.3 walk rate and 12.1 strikeout rate.

So good numbers, followed by a solid major league debut. But he was cut loose and he headed off to the O’s organization.

“I knew it was going to be tough (to stay with Tampa Bay),” said Sulser. “I felt really good at the end of the year. I definitely felt like things started clicking for me more and more and I was really happy to end the year on a strong note. I think the things that led to that for me was a little bit more consistency with my off-speed pitches. The ability to throw a couple of pitches in the strike zone. A couple of those things I had struggled with earlier in the season. So when those clicked, the season started going a lot smoother for me.

“But in terms of not being retained, I knew it was a tough battle. I was added to the roster late. Felt like I did what I could in September, but at the same time, I knew there was stiff competition with that organization. So, ultimately, some decisions had to be made and some moves had to be made for the playoffs, and you know I was just thankful for the opportunity to pitch at the big league level.”

Sulser-Plants-Orange-ST-sidebar.jpgSulser said as baseball moved more toward data and analytics, he embraced it.

“It played a major role,” he said. “I’m kind of an analytical-mind type of guy. I studied mechanical engineering in college. My background works a lot better with hard numbers and facts. For me, it was an easy transition. I always had a tougher time wrapping myself around, ‘My catcher and pitching coach said it was good, but how much better was it than something else?’

“For me, getting to see hard numbers using technology like Rapsodo and TrackMan was a tremendous help. It just made it easier for me to go out with confidence. I wasn’t taking someone’s word for it, but had data to back it up.”

So bring on the data and technology, Sulser said. He said he would pitch away from contact earlier in his career. But now he soaks up the numbers and said he learned a lot in two organizations that have developed some pitchers in Cleveland and Tampa.

“The biggest thing that changed for me ... was more awareness of what my pitches do themselves,” he said. “Earlier in my career, I was going with a lot of conventional words of wisdom and conventional pitching methods. Trying to get swings and misses with breaking balls down and away and trying to throw my fastball low in the zone. And as I started to understand more about the metrics of my pitches themselves, I started to be able to use them in ways that provided greater value for how they move and perform. And so I started using more fastballs late in counts. Throwing to different parts of the zone and kind of, with the Indians, that was a turning point for me. More understanding of how to better use my own stuff.

“Both those organizations that I’ve come from, they’ve had a good track record of developing pitchers. A lot of it stems from helping guys understand their stuff better and trying to optimize those things. Trying to learn to become a better version of yourself.

“So far, my experience here has been very similar. I can’t speak to how the Orioles did things in years past. But my experience with the coaches and analytics department we have currently, it has been very, very similar. A lot of good information. Being able to put numbers on things and it makes it easier to understand. And then really drive home what our strengths are and trying to maximize those out on the field.”

Sulser seems to have a good chance to be on the opening day roster on Friday night. He could be used as a middle-inning, multi-inning reliever. If he does make it, he’ll be using the analytics he first embraced along the way with his previous clubs.

“The Indians did a really good of trying to help me understand what my stuff really was,” he said. “And I think with the Rays, the same thing - they kind of drove home that topic of how much better pitchers perform when they’re ahead in counts and leveraging counts. It helped to hear that from two different teams, two different points of view. Stressing the same facts. It kind of hit home more and more. You’ll have some off days, but overall, I feel it is something I tried to buy into more and more. The best thing I can do is try to be aggressive and make that hitter make tough decisions and not make the decisions easy on him by wasting pitches.”

O’s lose at Oriole Park: The Orioles (1-1) lost 4-2 to Washington last night at Camden Yards. Alex Cobb’s outing was encouraging. The right-hander allowed two hits and two runs in four innings plus one batter. He threw some very nice splitters. Anthony Santander had two hits and looks ready for the opener. Click here for more on the game and some injury updates.

This tweet shows the in-game interview with O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias last night on the MASN telecast. MASN will air tonight’s game at Nats Park at 6 p.m. with the Nationals announcers. We’ll have another game blog here later.

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