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Oriole of the Day: Cutting down walks made Cole Sulser team’s most reliable reliever

With MLB owners continuing to lock out the players as the two sides slowly work toward a new collective bargaining agreement, Orioles officials are barred from specifically discussing players on the team’s 40-man roster.

The Baltimore Sun, of course, faces no such stipulations. Throughout the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at each Oriole, examining their 2021 seasons and what’s ahead for them in 2022, assuming the league and the players’ union eventually come together.

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The first member of Baltimore’s bullpen to be featured is right-hander Cole Sulser, who surprisingly opened 2020 as the Orioles’ closer, then dabbled in the role in 2021 while serving as manager Brandon Hyde’s most reliable reliever.

Quick hits

2022 Opening Day age: 32

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2021 stats: 2.70 ERA, 63 ⅓ innings, 73 strikeouts, 1.12 WHIP, 28.4 K%, 8.9 BB%, 1.5 fWAR

Under team control through: 2025

2021 in review

Number to know: 8.1. Sulser’s 8.1% decline in walk rate from 2020 to 2021 was the second largest among pitchers who threw as many innings as he did in each of those seasons. Those who ranked first and fourth, respectively, were Robbie Ray and Corbin Burnes, 2021′s Cy Young Award winners. As a late-inning reliever rather than a starter, Sulser likely doesn’t have that kind of recognition in his future, but that improvement speaks largely to how he made himself an asset in 2021.

What was good: In 2020, Sulser had stark reverse splits, holding left-handed hitters to a .214 slugging percentage in 49 plate appearances while right-handers slugged .513 off him in 51 plate appearances. His splitter, though, stifled batters on both sides of the plate and was actually more effective against right-handers. In 2021, he threw the pitch to them more often, with last season’s version featuring far more vertical break than its predecessor, making it above-average in that regard. It also was, by Statcast’s run value metric, the best pitch among any Orioles offering. That all led to far more balanced splits: a .361 slugging percentage by right-handers and .274 slugging percentage by lefties.

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What wasn’t: There isn’t much to pick at in Sulser’s 2021; despite a 2020 season that gave the perception he’s not fit to close, he posted a 0.84 ERA when pitching in the ninth inning or later with a lead. One wart: His fastball was routinely hit hard. Among pitchers who ended at least 60 plate appearances with a four-seamer, Sulser’s was put in play at the 10th-highest average exit velocity (93.8 mph) with the fourth-highest hard-hit rate (58.3%, meaning the frequency it was put in play at 95 mph or harder). The pitch was a success in the upper third of the strike zone, with opponents posting an expected slugging percentage of .326 when putting it in play while the league average was .590. But when thrown lower in the zone, Sulser’s fastball surrendered a .808 expected slugging percentage compared with a leaguewide mark of .679.

According to Statcast’s run value metric, reliever Cole Sulser's splitter was the best pitch offered by any Oriole during the 2021 season.
According to Statcast’s run value metric, reliever Cole Sulser's splitter was the best pitch offered by any Oriole during the 2021 season. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Looking ahead to 2022

Likely 2022 role: Late-inning reliever

What’s projected: Projection systems ZiPS and Steamer see Sulser taking a step back in 2022, estimating he’ll finish with an ERA near or above 4.00. Both forecast he’ll have a lower strikeout rate and higher walk rate, though the latter isn’t expected to approach the massive 17% he had in 2020. He’ll enter the season as a candidate to close, but it would be understandable if the Orioles preferred to use Tyler Wells in that role and have Sulser as a go-to setup man.

A step forward: As mentioned, Sulser’s walk rate took a steep drop between the past two seasons, but further improvement from 2021′s 8.9% could lead to an even better 2022. Obviously, fewer walks is always ideal, but Sulser was more susceptible than the average pitcher when working from behind. Batters hit .356/.537/.610 off Sulser when ahead in the count, an OPS about 160 points higher than league average.

Three up, three down

This series is ordered based on the WAR, as measured by FanGraphs, each member of Baltimore’s 40-man roster produced in 2021. The past three players featured in the series were John Means, Austin Hays and Ramón Urías. The Orioles due up next are Ryan Mountcastle, Tyler Wells and Jorge López.

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