Of all the breakouts that occurred in 2020, the most difficult to gauge the validity of came from relievers. Across the big league landscape, teams grappled with how best exactly to consider results in this area from '20’s hyper-small sample, given the infamously fickle year-to-year nature of reliever data. Which breakouts were real? Which weren’t? Even in a full 162-game season, sometimes it’s difficult to tell.
Maybe the easiest answer to those questions is the simplest one: that 2021 will determine them. Which is why the Orioles are keeping close eyes on certain members of their bullpen, which surprised many when it emerged as one of baseball’s most valuable units last summer behind breakouts from Tanner Scott, César Valdéz, Dillon Tate and others. That progress was plain to see again Wednesday, when all three played key roles in the O’s 4-3 extra-inning win over the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
Combining for 5 1/3 crucial innings in relief of John Means, the O’s 'pen allowed them to withstand Ryan Mountcastle’s costly eighth-inning misplay and avoid a sweep, with Chance Sisco’s 11th-inning single off Chad Green plating the winning run. The victory snapped their franchise-worst 12-game losing streak to the Yankees in the Bronx dating back to 2019.
“Our bullpen won us that game,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We still don’t have a ton of experience down there, so games like this you hope will boost their confidence and help them continue to grow.”
Tate wiggled out of Means’ mess in the fifth, after the O’s built a one-run lead on Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander solo homers. Scott buzzed through the heart of the Yankees order in the sixth and seventh, striking out three and hitting 99.7 mph on the radar gun. And after New York rallied to tie it off Shawn Armstrong following Mountcastle’s misplay, Valdez clamped down seven outs ahead of Paul Fry’s first save, which Santander completed by tossing Gio Urshela out at home to end the game.
All told, it was a team effort from a relief corps now sporting a 3.00 ERA through six games, after ranking seventh among AL clubs in the metric last season. The unit’s star is Valdez, the 36-year-old journeyman the O’s plucked from the Mexican League and turned into MLB’s most unorthodox closer. But from a long-term rebuild perspective, the most encouraging signs come from Tate and Scott, two tantalizing talents who stalled for years on the development side before breaking out in '20. They are now two of Hyde’s go-to high-leverage arms from the right and left side, specifically, with Scott profiling as a back-end option as well.
“It’s definitely improved a lot,” Scott said of the bullpen as a whole. “Everyone’s goal is to give everything they’ve got and hang a zero. At the end of the day, everyone has been doing great.”
The No. 4 overall pick in 2015, Tate cycled through three organizations before debuting with the O’s in '19, pitching to a 6.43 ERA and 1.286 WHIP over his first 16 appearances. He sliced those numbers to 3.24 and 0.84 in 12 games in '20, while adding depth to his sinker and slider and softening his walk rate.
The 99.7 mph fastball Scott used to whiff Brett Gardner to end the sixth was evidence of the raw stuff he’s always had; he eclipsed 99 mph with individual pitches from '17-'19, albeit with a 13.2 percent walk rate in that span. Shedding that number even marginally to 11.6 helped Scott lower his ERA from 4.77 in '19 to 1.31 in '20, while maintaining elite fastball velocity, spin and other peripherals. Toss in a hellacious slider coming from the left-side, and it’s easy to understand why the Orioles are eager to see if Scott’s improvement is here to stay.
“Tanner is a completely new pitcher,” Means said. “He has the same stuff but the command he has now makes him almost unhittable. He’s come a long way.”
And if you consider the same for Fry (2.45 ERA in 2020) and Armstrong (1.80 ERA in '20), it's not hard to envision the Orioles 'pen -- a historically bad unit as recently as 2019 -- surprising some people in 2021.
“We have so much talent in that bullpen,” Means said. “It’s going to be good for a long time.”