Based on his current form, it will take plenty going sideways for Orioles left-hander Richard Bleier to pitch himself off the team's Opening Day roster and out of his current bullpen role this spring.
Yet based on how he's doing it, with his unremarkable velocity and effortlessly deceptive delivery, spring training games seemingly don’t present a clear path for him to earn a larger role, either. How can he overwhelm to the extent required?
Bleier, who turns 31 in April, can only continue to pitch like himself, which — luckily for him — is exactly what manager Buck Showalter is looking for.
"It's just a continuation of what [he did] very quietly," Showalter said. "He had that much success over a long period of time. Really, two years of getting after it.
"Then you start watching and really bearing down in spring — what is he doing? Why is this happening? He's got a lot of deception in his delivery. He moves the ball on both sides of the plate, mixing pitches, and they all look the same. Guys just don't see the ball well off him. They see a lot of weak contact."
Bleier, along with reliever-turned-starter Miguel Castro, were co-champions of last year's game of musical bullpen chairs for the Orioles. As it stands, especially with a vacated bullpen spot for the first two months of the season with closer Zach Britton out with an Achilles injury and Castro likely ticketed for the rotation, Bleier's inclusion in an Opening Day bullpen with Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, and Darren O'Day seems a near-certainty.
That would be buoyed by his spring so far, in which he's allowed one hit in three scoreless innings with one strikeout, but also helped by his track record. The Orioles lacked a left-handed specialist for most of last season, but Bleier’s sneaky sinker helped him post a 1.99 ERA. All that can determine whether it was a statistical anomaly will be for it to happen again.
His ground-ball rate (68.8 percent) was second best in baseball among the 155 qualified relievers in the majors last season, but his strikeout rate of 3.69 per nine innings was last among that group.
That pitch-to-contact philosophy relies heavily on the defense behind him, so there's a chance his major league success could disappear. By fielding-independent pitching, which calculates an ERA replica based on a pitcher's walks, strikeouts and home runs allowed while assuming he plays before a league-average defense, was 4.37 — a figure that tells a much different story than Bleier's reality.
"It's just the way I pitch," Bleier said. "I've always pitched to contact, and thankfully my fastball has always had sink to it. I have an idea of how to pitch and how to keep the ball on the ground and how to manage an inning. Depending on the situation and the score and who's up and stuff like that. I think that I learned a lot last year and I'm kind of still learning and carrying it into this year."
One of the things experience has taught Bleier is why he might not get the same attention when he does things versus those who throw harder. His teammate, Britton, is a ground-ball machine, but adds in a batter-per-inning strikeout rate at his best to make him one of the game's top relievers. Same goes for southpaw Scott Alexander, who was the only reliever with a better ground-ball rate than Bleier among relievers last year. He throws 93 mph sinkers and misses bats, so the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired him from the rebuilding Kansas City Royals in January.
But where velocity and missing bats might be valued above all else in most cases, Bleier said the end result is his main concern. Just 10 of 45 inherited runners scored on him last season (22.2 percent, compared with the league average of 29 percent), and as the team's long reliever, he inherited his share of difficult spots.
"I think it comes down to, especially if you're a reliever, if you can leave runners on base — inherited runners, stranded runners — it doesn’t really matter how," Bleier said. "The idea is with less than two outs and runners in scoring position, you need strikeouts. I think I proved a little bit last year that's not necessarily true. I came in in situations with second and third, no outs multiple times and stranded both of them with no strikeouts, or one strikeout, or whatever. I think that it just comes down to getting the job done any way."
Showalter has indeed come around to how Bleier does things, however unconventional it is.
"I think through it, he'll go 2-0, 3-1, and if you didn't know him [you worry] — but now it's just kind of Richard," Showalter said. "It's assume the position, and you're going to like the body of work of that inning when it's all said and done. What makes him different is what makes him unique. Who's like him? And that's why it's good. There's a lot of things like that where you say this guy's not typical, but every once in a while there's an exception. He is who he is and he's kind of like Zach — he's always a pitch away from getting out of the inning."