Key takeaways about O's breakout relievers

September 21st, 2020

There will be classic 2020 questions: What was real? What wasn’t? What stats can be trusted from such a small 60-game sample?

They are questions that will be directed most especially toward bullpens, where reliever volatility year to year was already a well-known issue. That’s also where the Orioles are experiencing across-the-board improvement in 2020, which has seen significant ‘pen turnover and several young arms come into their own after very rocky 2019 seasons.

And now with Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier, Miguel Castro and others elsewhere, a number of those young arms are assuming more prominent roles. Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest breakouts in Baltimore’s ‘pen, and what might bode well for 2021 even with this season’s small sample size.

LHP Tanner Scott
2019: 4.78 ERA, 4.77 FIP, 30 percent SO rate, 16 percent BB rate in 26 1/3 IP
2020: 1.33 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 27 percent SO rate, 12 percent BB rate in 20 1/3 IP

bounced back and forth between the Majors and Triple-A last season as he sought consistency with his mechanics and command. That wildness isn’t totally gone, but the improvements he’s made this season speak even more to how elite he could be if it all completely clicks.

And if this is his ceiling, the Orioles would probably be fine with that, too. Harnessed properly, Scott’s stuff is simply dominating: it’s 91st percentile fastball velocity with 98th percentile spin, plus an upper-80s slider with above average horizontal and vertical break, coming from the left side. But it mattered little when Scott was falling behind in the count; opponents hit .277 off him last year. That number is just .145 this season --- and .042 when Scott is ahead in the count.

RHP Dillon Tate
2019: 6.43 ERA, 5.17 FIP, 22 percent SO rate, 10 percent walk rate in 21 IP
2020: 3.24 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 22 percent SO rate, 8 percent walk rate in 16 2/3 IP

It’s been a long, winding road for , the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 Draft. But he appears to be emerging as an effective setup option during his second season in Baltimore, carving out a niche as a sinker-slider guy who can provide multiple innings if needed. The strikeouts are up, the walks are down and he’s been tough to elevate, allowing just one homer across 13 appearances.

The difference this year? Stuff, and changes in pitch mix. Tate is throwing his four-seamer 1.5 mph harder on average and a sinker that’s diving more sharply than a year ago, and he has pumped his slider usage from 12 to 26 percent, per Statcast. Slashing his sinker usage from 51 to 32.5 percent has made him less predictable; Tate has four pitches and uses them all between 32.5 and 24 percent of the time. It’s allowed them to all play up.

“His stuff has really ticked up from last year," O’s manager Brandon Hyde said. “It’s a really tough at-bat because it’s a funky delivery with a lot of movement on his pitches. I am happy with his progression and how he’s throwing a lot more strikes.”

RHP Evan Phillips
2019: 6.43 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 29 percent strikeout rate, 14 percent walk rate in 28 innings
2020: 3.14 ERA, 2.69 FIP, 31 percent strikeout rate, 12 percent walk rate in 14 1/3 innings

’ peripherals suggest he was a better pitcher last year than the results indicated, but he didn’t do himself many favors by walking 20 and hitting five more in 25 games. What Phillips did do well was miss bats and keep the ball in the ballpark; he’s doing that again but better this year, while issuing fewer free passes.

The results have been really good, especially lately. Phillips hasn’t allowed a run in his last nine appearances and struck out eight of the 11 batters he faced in his last two combined.

“That’s the best I’ve seen Evan Phillips,” Hyde said. “It’s never been about stuff. It’s been about command and pitching ahead in the count in the strike zone.”

LHP Paul Fry
2019: 5.34 ERA, 4.71 FIP, 22 percent strikeout rate, 11 percent walk rate in 57 1/3 IP
2020: 2.25 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 27 percent strikeout rate, eight percent walk rate in 20 IP

’s biggest adjustment might be the mechanical change he made to his setup, lowering his hands in the set position to avoid tipping pitches. This year, he’s holding his hands at his belt rather than over his face, and he’s showing statistical improvement across the board.

“I was straight-up giving the guys at second base exactly what I was throwing,” Fry said. “I had my glove wide open to second base and they could see everything. I only have two pitches, so it’s kind of easy to pick.”

Fry is throwing the fastball 2 mph harder on average and morphed the slider into a sweeping out pitch, ranking 14th among relievers in vertical movement vs. average and fourth in horizontal movement vs. average per Statcast. His walks are down, strikeouts are up and is stranding inherited baserunners at an elite 93 percent clip.