There are areas where we saw improvement during the 2020 Orioles season, but few as dramatic as the bullpen. The bullpen ERA improved by nearly two runs per game. And the ‘pen changed from one that gave up a lot of homers and was among the easiest to get a hit off in the American League to a stingy one in allowing homers and much tougher to hit.
At a time when bullpens are used more than ever and are more important than ever, the trend upward this season was big for the Orioles.
The ‘pen showed that it had both some flamethrowers and good depth. Depth that allowed it to trade three previous ‘pen stalwarts in Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro and Richard Bleier.
That trio combined to pitch 31 2/3 innings this season. Bleier was traded Aug. 1 to Miami for a player to be named later. That player turned out to be 18-year-old Dominican shortstop Isaac De León. Givens was traded Aug. 30 to Colorado for infielders Tyler Nevin and Terrin Vavra and a player to be named, which became 18-year-old Dominican outfielder Mishael Deson. Castro was traded Aug. 31 to the Mets for minor league lefty starter Kevin Smith and a player to be named, which became 17-year-old Dominican shortstop Victor Gonzalez.
In the latest MLBPipeline.com O’s top 30 ratings, Smith is No. 12, Vavra No. 13 and Nevin No. 22. So the O’s moved those three relievers for three players ranked in their top 30 and three young international prospects, all signed for at least $250,000.
So the 2020 O’s bullpen produced that new talent. But also an ERA of 3.90, which ranked seventh in the American League and was much better than the 5.79 ERA of 2019, which was last in the AL. The 2019 bullpen led the AL in homers allowed, but the 2020 group allowed 0.93 homers per nine innings, third-best in the league. The 2019 batting average against of .271 was 14th in the league; this year, that number was .222, third-best in the AL to only Oakland (.205) and Cleveland (.221).
The bullpen WHIP improved from 1.51, 14th in the league to 1.27, tied for sixth. The club got a bit better in strikeout rate (8.6 to 8.8) and walk rate (4.1 to 3.9). To go along with that solid homer rate, the bullpen produced a groundball rate of 45.0 to rank third in the league. In FanGraphs.com’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for 2020 AL bullpens, the O’s were tied for fourth at 3.0.
Sure, right-hander Cole Sulser was moved out of the closer role when he gave up 10 runs in 6 1/3 innings during a five-game stretch late in August. Sure, he blew several games. But he also can throw mid-90s with a solid changeup and lefties hit just .143 off him. As someone with three options remaining that is not close to arbitration eligible, I see him with a chance to win a job here next spring.
Others spots in the 2021 bullpen are more secure.
Like lefty Tanner Scott, who went from a 4.78 ERA, a 1.785 WHIP and 6.5 walks per nine in 2019, to a 1.31 ERA, a 1.065 WHIP and a much more workable 4.4 walk rate. The slider can play versus left- and right-handed batters, and he gave up just one homer in 20 2/3 innings.
Like lefty Paul Fry, who went from a 1-9 record and an ERA of 5.34 to 1-0 with an ERA of 2.45. Fry also gained two miles per hour on his fastball and threw his slider harder at times, too.
In an early September interview, Fry talked about the new-look O’s ‘pen - one that lost Bleier, Givens and Castro, but still had plenty of hurlers with mid-to-upper 90s gas.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that throw hard and can throw strikes, too,” he said. “We all have the stuff. I’m not a guy that throws 98 (mph). But as long as I can attack the zone and throw strikes. I think our bullpen is in a really good spot. Lot of youth and a lot of talent. The experience is going to come this year and this is a good opportunity for everyone to show what they’ve got.”
Right-hander Shawn Armstrong missed some time with injuries, but also posted a 1.80 ERA and a 0.800 WHIP. Righty Dillon Tate showed a fastball that averaged 94.4 mph and posted an ERA of 3.24 in 12 games. Right-hander Hunter Harvey keeps trying to find consistent health and posted an ERA of 4.15 in 10 games. No doubt the club could foresee him making the improvement next year that Scott made in this one. Righty Travis Lakins Sr., clamed off waivers from the Cubs, posted an ERA of 2.81. Right-hander Branden Kline looked better in a short span, with an ERA of 1.80 in five innings.
But the guy that maybe made the biggest impression had the slowest pitches. He is 35-year-old right-hander César Valdez, who threw a fastball at 85 mph and a changeup about 80 percent of the time at 77 or 78 mph. Valdez posted an ERA of 1.26 and WHIP of 0.698 over 14 1/3 innings.
Valdez was signed by the Orioles on Jan. 9 as a minor league free agent after he was the Mexican League Pitcher of the Year in 2019. He was not even a non-roster invitee to spring training, but he just kept impressing with any chances he got in the spring or later in summer camp at Camden Yards. When he threw three scoreless innings for the Orioles on Aug. 29, he was back in the majors for the first time in over three years.
From Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Valdez was originally signed at 20 in 2005 by Arizona. He made his major league debut with that club in 2010, but would not return to the majors until 2017, and then not again after that until Aug. 29. The next day, he discussed his return to the majors with O’s reporters.
“It’s been one of the best days of my life,” Valdez said in a Zoom interview. “It’s been a long road after so many years of hard work, dedication and a lot of sweat and tears. It finally paid off. I never lost faith that I could make it again, and here I am today. So I’m very thankful for the opportunity.
“In 2015, unfortunately I lost my dad, and he was one of the persons that always told me to keep trying. To never give up. You never know what can happen, keep on going. So I really wanted to do it for him and for myself. To continue to keep trying, keep pushing. And despite that unfortunate circumstance, try to achieve something for me and my family.”
Valdez was a great story on the 2020 Orioles.
So the Baltimore bullpen was rather productive this season. We saw holdover relievers get better and some low-cost pickups show promise. Three pitchers were traded, providing potential future help for the roster.