By one measurement, Richard Bleier is the best statistical pitcher to ever toe the major league rubber. He knows that by the relatively arbitrary measurement of pitchers with 101 big league innings or more, his 242 ERA+ was the best.
"I guess it's nice, but I don't really know what it is," Bleier said.
He knows it to be true, but almost a decade in the minor leagues means that even as he reached 100 major league innings Friday, there's no level of success that will be enough for him to comfortably reflect on what he’s accomplished.
To illustrate how Bleier has developed into a safety blanket for manager Buck Showalter and maintained his effectiveness at the beginning of a career that's occurring when most his age (31) are winding down — and to illustrate just how Bleier can remain so in tune with the day’s task even with his success — the manager goes back to the second-last week of spring training.
The Orioles were planning a two-day trip to the east coast of Florida, and Showalter brought the relievers into the coaches' meeting room to discuss who would be traveling for the overnight trip.
“We have a roster board with the givens — you knew Manny [Machado] was going to be on the club. You knew [Andrew] Cashner was going to be a starter — it was all up there. And Richard came in there, and I couldn't figure out why he was so excited and so pumped,” Showalter said. “This guy, with a [1.99] ERA last year, was totally excited that his name was on the given board. That struck me as all you need to know about Richard.
"He had a pretty good year last year, OK? And he completely was working to try to get another opportunity. I find that really, to me, kind of explains Richard."
Bleier saw the reference to his baseball-best ERA+ in an ESPN article earlier this month, declaring him the top candidate to be everyone's new favorite reliever. But he didn't look into what went into all that. The sample-size used to rank him is one-tenth of the accepted 1,000-inning limit used for most career statistics.
When a reporter explained to Bleier that ERA+ takes a pitcher's ERA and normalizes it to both ballpark factors and the league-wide average ERA, and doing so with his 1.78 career ERA yields the best mark of any pitcher with at least 101 innings in baseball history, he was right to declare “there's a lot of factors in that." His raw ERA is the best in baseball history for that qualifier as well.
"I'm sure it's a good thing, but you know, whatever," Bleier said. "I don't know. I think one day when I'm done playing, I'll appreciate it more than now. We've got other things going on than personal achievements."
Even if his 14 2/3 innings with a 0.95 WHIP and just one run allowed are a bright spot on a team lacking them, he doesn't want the glare from any of that or reaching 101 big league innings with two scoreless frames in the win over the Cleveland Indians to be seen as distracting from the goal of helping turn around the Orioles' season.
"I think it may [mean something] at some point," Bleier said before Friday’s game. "It doesn't right now. But what does it matter when we're 5-14? I'm here now, and we're trying to win games. It doesn't really matter. Maybe one day down the road, I'll be able to look back at my accomplishments and failures and take them for what they're worth and see when the dust settles. Right now, I'm more focused on team things than individual things."
He can at least take solace that his role on the team has grown. Of his first ten appearances, four were what Baseball Reference classifies as high leverage. He had eight such appearances in 57 games last season. There are days when he's still the long reliever in the Orioles bullpen, but just as many when he's called upon to get a crucial set of outs in a close game. Either suits him.
"I think I still need to be ready from the first inning to the ninth inning," Bleier said. "I think it's similar to last year, but I'm pitching a little more high-leverage situations, which is definitely nice. I think everybody strives for that. They want to pitch in the toughest situations and succeed, and I like that. But as far as my mentality, I think every pitch is the most important pitch I've ever thrown in my life. I don't know that I'll ever change that. Every pitch, I'm out there to prove that I can do it. That's been my mentality, and as long as it works, I'll stick with it."