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Oriole of the Day: Tyler Wells attacked strike zone to rise from Rule 5 pick to closer

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 latter of Baltimore’s two Rule 5 draftees last winter, Tyler Wells went from mop-up duty to the closer’s role only a few months into his major league career, showing a knack for pounding the strike zone without fear.

Quick hits

2022 Opening Day age: 27

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2021 stats: 4.11 ERA, 57 innings, 65 strikeouts, 0.912 WHIP, 29.0 K%, 5.4 BB%, 0.9 fWAR

Under team control through: 2026

2021 in review

Number to know: 3.0. From June 1 on, the only pitchers with a lower walk rate than Wells’ 3.0% were Liam Hendriks, Emmanuel Clase and Jacob deGrom. Before that, Wells’ first taste of pitching above Double-A was unspectacular. He posted a 5.48 ERA in his first 13 major league appearances, all of which began with the Orioles either up big or down by multiple runs. But beginning with a scoreless three innings against the Minnesota Twins, his former organization, Wells climbed Baltimore’s bullpen ladder by consistently attacking hitters. Over the season’s final four months, no pitcher who threw at least 30 innings got batters to swing more often than Wells.

What was good: Wells had six games of experience above High-A when the Orioles took him in the second round of the Rule 5 draft, having missed the 2019 season because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery before the pandemic canceled the 2020 minor league season. Yet, he arrived in the majors believing he belonged. The early results could’ve been demoralizing. Of the balls put in play against him in April, 28% were what Statcast considers “barrels,” the most successful types of hits, well above the leaguewide rate of 8.4%. But he bounced back and was getting chances to close less than two months later. Over the rest of the season, opponents barreled only 7.4% of balls in play against Wells, below the league average.

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What wasn’t: Wells’ lack of work in recent years seemed to catch up to him in the season’s final weeks. He was admittedly fatigued, and it showed in his results. After allowing two walks and six earned runs in a 25-appearance span, he matched those figures in back-to-back blown saves in mid-September. He followed with three straight scoreless outings before suffering a shoulder injury that ended his season.

Looking ahead to 2022

Likely 2022 role: Closer

What’s projected: Manager Brandon Hyde said late in the year that the Orioles were open to returning Wells to the starter role he held as a minor leaguer come spring, but given the innings jump a rotation spot would require and the way he adopted a late-inning relief role, it would make the most sense for the Orioles to keep him at the back of the bullpen. Of the players featured thus far in the series, Wells has the largest gap in 2022 projections between Steamer and ZiPS. Steamer sees Wells as the Orioles’ closer, while ZiPS projects a multi-inning relief role and a handful of starts. Both project an increase in his walk rate and a decrease in his strikeout rate, both of which would be feasible in a second season as the league adjusts to more looks at Wells.

A step forward: A full season of Wells as the Orioles’ closer would represent a step forward not only for him, but also the entire Baltimore bullpen. During Hyde’s time as manager, the Orioles have yet to find a consistent ninth-inning option, with Mychal Givens, Cole Sulser, Paul Fry and César Valdez all getting opportunities but each unable to make them last. Reliability from Wells in the ninth would allow the rest of the bullpen to settle into defined roles, which throughout this rebuild has been a near impossibility.

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 Ramón Urías, Cole Sulser and Ryan Mountcastle. The Orioles due up next are Jorge López, Anthony Santander and Trey Mancini.

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