September 27, 2022

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O's pitching has been top notch in '22. Here's how

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This story was excerpted from Zachary Silver’s Orioles Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Despite the lack of Major League moves to their pitching staff this offseason — Jordan Lyles was the only big league signing to that end this offseason — the Orioles are throwing the ball as well as any club. Among rotations, those in front of them are chock-full of All-Stars, World Series MVPs, Cy Youngs. Among bullpens, none are rated higher by fWAR standards — a year after owning the worst ERA in relief.

“Guys are stepping up right now,” said Lyles, who’s been part of many pitching staffs in his career. “Guys are — when their name is called — they’re ringing the bell. It’s time to go.”

The word “contagious” was thrown around by multiple Orioles this week — and for good reason.

“When the guys around you are throwing well, you want to be a part of it,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “They’re feeding off each other.”

And this has largely been accomplished without their own ace. Speaking of which, John Means announced on Saturday that he will be undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, officially ending his 2022 season and possibly sidelining him partway into ’23 as well.

No matter. Here’s how the Orioles — against perennial playoff teams, against some of top scoring offenses in baseball and against two generational talents this weekend — have somehow been doing it:

They’re playing to their strengths
Which team has faced among the fewest 3-0 counts and thrown among the highest percentage of first-pitch strikes? The Orioles.

Which team leads the American League when it comes to strikeouts on offspeed pitches? The Orioles.

Which team leads the Majors in percentage of overall pitches thrown for strikes? If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know it’s the Orioles.

It’s clear the O’s have a recipe. Their pitchers are drastically aided by the defensive prowess of their new catcher, Anthony Bemboom, and veteran Robinson Chirinos. The pitchers also offer different looks and arm slots, as noticed early by Rays manager Kevin Cash. They feature what might be the most collective velocity an Orioles bullpen has ever possessed.

“I think you’ll eat these guys up here knowing that they’re gonna get 95, 96, 97 mph thrown at them just by anybody so far coming out of the ’pen,” left-hander Keegan Akin said this week. “Changing speeds is crucial in this game. I mean, you see guys turn 100 mph around like it’s sitting on a tee these days.”

Akin might be the poster child of the Orioles’ pitching turnaround. Struggles finding him throughout his career, he rode a 7 2/3-inning scoreless streak to open the season — and owns the highest percentage of strikes thrown this season (minimum 100 pitches).

And it’s evidently contagious.

They’re playing to their identity
This is the Orioles’ pitching staff, by background: Three free-agent signings (two Minor League deals), two Draft picks, three trade acquisitions, one Rule 5 Draft pick and six former waiver claims, including Jorge López, their closer.

That blue-collar identity merely fuels the attitude that they can fearlessly attack hitters. What else, really, is there to lose?

“It’s super rewarding, honestly,” Bryan Baker, a waiver claim himself, said this week. “It’s really fun seeing guys that have improved dramatically over the past couple of years and are getting a shot because they earned it now and seeing success early. It’s pretty cool seeing guys that are waiver claims or guys that really haven’t had many chances.”

It’s woven into their fabric — and it’s fuel for an already-scintillating fire.

“It’s just everything I’ve been working for my whole life,” Baker said. “… Me and Joey Krehbiel will joke around about who has more service time. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you got a week more than me.’”

They’re having fun
Four games in Oakland, despite three losses, came with plenty of enjoyment. Pregame Monday, it was using one of the bullpen plates as a make-do bocce ball target. On Wednesday, during position-player stretch, the bullpen amassed in a circle and played hacky sack.

It’s easy to have fun when you’re pitching as well as you are. But the Orioles are aided by their journeys, their personalities and their differences — both in terms of personal flair and pitching prowess.

“Man, it’s really fun,” Baker said. “It’s really fun to be a part of [this staff]. It’s a fun group of guys put together, a bunch of different personalities, and I think we all mesh pretty well. We’re all ready whenever our name is called. It’s very contagious when you see guys going about their business the right way, and then you kind of want to follow that up and do your own thing.”

The only thing possibly more entertaining? Keeping the results flowing.

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