When looking for reasons why the Orioles have broken out with an AL-leading 91 wins this season, the options are plentiful.
They have a plethora of young studs that include but are not limited to Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez. Even without Félix Bautista following his UCL injury, their vaunted bullpen still includes excellent arms like Yennier Cano and Danny Coulombe. But at the top of the list of most important players -- and reasons why Baltimore is in its current position -- is Kyle Bradish.
The 27-year-old has emerged as the top starter on a team that very well could be the No. 1 seed in the American League. Following a rookie season in which he posted a 4.90 ERA and 0.7 bWAR across 117 2/3 innings, the second-year starter has tossed 139 2/3 innings this season with a 3.03 ERA and 3.8 WAR -- both of which are top-15 figures among qualified starters.
Acquired in the 2019 Dylan Bundy trade, Bradish was MLB Pipeline's No. 21 prospect in the Angels system at the time of the trade. When he was drafted in the fourth round out of New Mexico State in 2018, the baseball industry was split on whether Bradish would stick as a starter or a reliever. Since then, Bradish has blossomed as a starter in an Orioles organization that has increasingly shown the ability to get the most out of its pitchers.
Here's how this talented right-hander found himself leading the Orioles rotation and vaulted himself into the Cy Young Award conversation in 2023.
Building on a strong finish
In Bradish's eyes, the biggest difference this season has been learning and growing through trial and error.
“The biggest thing for me is the confidence being in the big leagues for a second season," Bradish said. "I had a good second half last year so I was able to go into the offseason and build on that."
That improvement in the second half of last season was a pretty good indicator that Bradish was turning a corner.
Bradish's 1st half vs. 2nd half, 2022
While the strikeout and walk numbers were largely the same, Bradish took a humongous step forward by reducing the number of crushed baseballs against him. He more than halved his barrel rate and saw a 99-point drop in expected wOBA -- based on the quality of contact (exit velo, launch angle), strikeouts and walks.
That same success has carried over into 2023, but he's seen even better results.
Bradish's 2nd half of 2022 vs. the entire 2023 season
ERA: 3.28 vs. 3.03
K rate: 21.9% vs. 24.7%
BB rate: 9.4% vs. 6.6%
FIP: 3.73 vs. 3.40
"I think I’m actually pitching now. I'm learning to set up hitters," Bradish said about his success this season. "I've been able to read hitters' swings and throw my stuff where I want to."
Following his trend of continued growth, Bradish has pitched better as the season has progressed. After posting a 6.14 ERA in his first four starts of 2023, Bradish has a 2.68 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and .596 opponents' OPS since May 1, all of which are second-best among starters with at least 100 innings in that time.
Altered pitch mix and more breaking balls
With Bradish's natural growth as a second-year pitcher came a further reliance on his two best pitches -- his elite slider and curveball -- and less dependence on his fastballs.
Bradish threw his two fastballs -- a four-seamer and sinker -- 48.9% of the time last season. This year, he's cut the four-seamer usage nearly in half and cranked up the sinker usage while throwing both fastballs 43.5% of the time. It was a big move for Bradish, whose four-seam fastball has allowed a .566 SLG against in his career while his sinker has produced a .368 SLG.
It was a necessary change for Bradish, whose four-seamer has natural cutting action and roughly average velocity in today's game. A 94.5 mph fastball with cutting action and below-average drop needed a complementary fastball -- or a replacement one. His reliance on the sinker has increased over the year; he has thrown it more than his four-seamer in each of the last two months.
At the same time, Bradish has been throwing more breaking balls -- and more effective ones. Bradish's slider usage stayed the same (around 30%) but he started throwing his curveball 4.5% more often. His oft-used changeup has been thrown about the same amount this season (8.9%).
"Being able to pitch off my breaking balls -- and with how good they are -- that's been huge," Bradish said. "Those are my two main weapons and I've been able to throw them more for strikes."
He's not wrong about commanding his breaking balls better. He's seen his strike rate on his breaking balls jump from 60.8% last year to 64.2% this year. With better command has come huge results on his slider and curveball.
Lowest wOBA allowed against breaking balls, SP, 2023
Min. 100 PA ending on breaking balls
That's a pretty good list to be on. Snell and Gray are Cy Young Award contenders in their respective leagues while Burnes is one of the best pitchers in the Majors. Even Gibson is an appropriate comparison -- Bradish considers his veteran teammate to be one of his mentors.
"I have a lot of credit to give to [Kyle] Gibson coming in this year and Jordan Lyles last season kinda taking me under their wing," Bradish said. "They’ve been doing it for 10-plus years so just trying to learn from them has been huge."
If you look at Run Value -- the run impact of an event based on the runners on base, outs, ball and strike count -- no pitcher is getting better results on their breaking balls this season than Bradish.
Highest run value on breaking balls, 2023
It's the slider that is now Bradish's most-utilized pitch at 30% and that's for good reason. Already great, the pitch has reached a new level this season as one of the best sliders in the Majors. By run value, Bradish's it's among the best by any starter. Only Jon Gray (+14), Clayton Kershaw (+13) and Spencer Strider (+12) have produced a higher run value on their sliders than Bradish (+11).
Bradish's slider is generating a healthy 36.5% whiff rate and .254 xwOBA. That makes plenty of sense when you look at the pitch characteristics. He's added a full tick of velocity (up to 88 mph) and nearly two more inches of horizontal break (12.8) this year. Bradish’s slider has 8.6 more inches of break than similar sliders at his velocity, the fourth-most of any qualified pitcher.
The progression on his curveball has been even more stark and gives him a pair of elite breaking balls. While Bradish always threw a hard curveball -- it averaged 83.2 mph in 2022 -- he's now throwing it 84.7 mph with great vertical drop.
"The slider has always been thrown hard, but for some reason the curveball just started being hard out of nowhere," Bradish said about the transformation on his curveball. "It used to be low-80s -- which was still pretty good for a curveball -- but now it’s 85-86."
More velocity on his curveball has led to big results. He's increased his whiff rate a whopping 11.4% up to 34.8% and has allowed a .217 xwOBA on the pitch. Much like his slider, his curveball is one of the best breaking balls by any starter. His +14 run value on the pitch only trails the curveballs thrown by Morton (+24) and Snell (+17).
Long-term outlook as a burgeoning ace
It's hard to not be giddy about the future of the Orioles organization. They're leading the American League in wins, have compiled an enviable group of young players and have plenty of more help coming in a loaded farm system led by top prospect Jackson Holliday. Bradish has now entered the conversation as one of their key building blocks and looks like the prime example of Baltimore's pitching program that is now churning out quality Major Leaguers with regularity.
By practically every measure, Bradish has pitched like a frontline starter this season. The overall stuff is rivaled by few starting pitchers. According to Stuff+ -- a model created by Eno Sarris and Max Bay that looks at the physical characteristics of a pitch -- Bradish is third-best (124) among qualified starters, behind only Strider and Burnes. The fact that he's able to harness that stuff and turn it into great results puts him in really good company.
“I mean, it’s great," Bradish said when asked about his de facto ace status. "I try to not look into the stats too much. So long as the team is winning, I’m happy."
As long as Bradish keeps pitching like this, those wins will keep coming for a Baltimore team that has positioned itself quite well for the next half-decade.