The Orioles don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the outcome of games these days. The pitch clock has shortened nine innings to two, two and a half hours. Their relief corps has shortened games by three innings.
If they have a lead, they start assuming the game is over “from the seventh,” says third baseman Gunnar Henderson.
No, catching coordinator Tim Cossins says: “You can feel the energy shift around the sixth.”
Even that is pessimistic, says reliever Bryan Baker, who starts relaxing in “the fifth, honestly.”
That’s what happens when your relievers—middle innings guys Baker and Danny Coulombe, setup man Mike Baumann, eighth-inning guy Yennier Canó and closer Félix Bautista—have been the most valuable in baseball thus far. Indeed, Baltimore has raced to a 34–19 record largely by being 23–3 in games it led after six innings. That’s the fourth-best mark in the sport, after only the Rays, Dodgers and Astros. And the Orioles are doing it the most fun possible way: by going directly after their opponents.
Every reliever advance meeting ends with a cry of “Let it rip,” generally with a couple of expletives tossed in. Pitchers strut around in T-shirts with LET IT EAT stretched across their chests, a gift from Cossins. They talk about aggressiveness and fearlessness and confidence.
“These are the best hitters in the world,” says pitching coach Chris Holt. “But these are also the best pitchers in the world, so they’ve gotta remember that.”
The idea, he explains, is to focus on stuff over command. This does not hold true for starters, he adds, who need to face a lineup three times. But these relievers’ pitches are virtually unhittable, he says, and they only need to throw a few of them. It almost doesn’t matter where they put them.
The result is a relief corps that throws the second-best four-seamers, the fourth-best splitters, the sixth-best two-seamers and the ninth-best changeups, according to Statcast; that strikes out the second-most batters (27.8%) and that generates the fifth-lowest slugging percentage (.345). Bautista was named the American League Reliever of the Month in April; his toughest competition was surely Canó, who did not allow a hit until May and walked his first man of the season last week.
GM Mike Elias learned the importance of a strong bullpen on a young team when the 2014 Astros, where he was scouting director, won only 77% of games they led after the sixth inning. Those losses were especially crushing for the prospects they hoped would form the core of a great club, so the priority that offseason became shoring up the bullpen. The ’15 Astros made the playoffs. He sees similarities with these Orioles, who won 52 games in ’21 and 83 in ’22.
“I also think a mediocre team, when they start to win, you’re not gonna be winning 10–0,” he says. “They’re going to be tighter battles. And so if somehow you’re able to wait a bit more than your fair share of small-difference games, theoretically that would be smart. Those things are easier said than done. But it definitely helped our team take a step forward last year.”
Beginning last season, when Orioles coaches realized that they had a lot of pitchers with good stuff who were not putting that stuff in the zone, they discussed strategies for helping build confidence in their pitchers.
First, they told them not to worry so much about precision. Even in 3–0 counts, when the pitcher is presumably trying very hard to put the next pitch in the strike zone, pitchers only succeed 56% of the time. So just try to throw a pitch that a hitter can’t touch.
How do you throw a pitch like that? The next step was to identify each pitcher’s strengths. This is certainly not a strategy unique to the Orioles, but they present data in a way that resonates with players. They also had a receptive audience, as manager Brandon Hyde points out. “A lot of our guys were guys that other guys gave up on,” he says. “They’re looking for an opportunity. They knew that to make an impact they were going to have to work ahead in the count and throw strikes.”
Bautista was released by the Marlins in 2015 before he ever played a game above the Dominican Summer League. Canó was a throw-in in the Jorge López deal with the Twins last summer. Baker came to Baltimore after the Blue Jays waived him after the ’21 season. Coulombe has been released twice. All were ready to listen to ideas.
“I think it's easier in today's game with the analytics to be able to show, ‘Hey, your fastball plays like this guy. Look at the success he has.’ ‘Hey, your breaking ball plays like this guy. Look at the success he has with this pitch,’” says catcher James McCann. “It’s just mentally framing it: My stuff is nasty. If I get it over the plate, I'm gonna be in a good spot.”
And then they start seeing the results. “One thing guys will learn when they attack the zone is how good their stuff actually is,” Holt says. “Whereas before in a number of cases, if they’re working to make pitches behind in the count all the time, that tends to work more in favor of the hitter, and so that’s a tough way to gain confidence. … When [pitchers are] on the attack and hitters on the defensive. It’s a completely different ballgame.”
Says Canó, “Last year, I would walk the first better of the inning and I would lose confidence in myself. Man, here we go again. But this year, it’s completely different. I feel a lot more confidence not only because of the results, but just my overall approach. So now, I’m a lot more confident being able to throw that first strike and get myself going.”
And then they become evangelists. “It’s almost better to miss [in the] middle and see if they can hit it rather than throw a ball,” says Baker. “Honestly, that’s one of the biggest mental hurdles that I overcame, and whenever I struggle still it’s usually because of walks or too many balls putting me into bad counts. So I’d almost rather give up a solo homer than walk somebody.”
But he is a reliever for the Orioles, so these days, he’s not doing much of either.