Orioles right-hander Mychal Givens' first full major league season has included some struggles — most notably trying to retire left-handed hitters — but the rookie reliever now finds himself a crucial late-inning piece to the bullpen.
This time last season, Givens, a converted infielder who changed to pitching three years ago, was just finding his bearings. His unconventional sidearm delivery baffled hitters, as did his mid-90s fastball. But once major league hitters adjusted to him, he had to do the same.
Now, the 26-year-old is pitching some of his best baseball, becoming a dependable arm that manager Buck Showalter can lean on late in the game.
"I'm just taking it one step at a time," Givens said. "There's always room to learn and get better, whether you have a short time in the big leagues or a long time in the big leagues. You're always learning each day and that's been the process throughout this year."
After a scoreless two-inning outing in Sunday's win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in which Givens struck out four of the seven batters he faced, he has pitched eight straight scoreless outings. In that time he's allowed just three hits over eight innings while striking out 12 and walking one.
Since July 31, Givens has a 2.39 ERA and has held opposing hitters to a .198 batting average.
"Obviously, you want him to be good and he's been a lot better than he was at the beginning of the season," closer Zach Britton said. "I think for the young guys, it's not how you start; it's how you finish. You want to see a guy making progress throughout the season. You see guys sometimes start out well and sometimes they fall off, whereas he's doing the opposite. He's doing better as he's gaining more experience."
The Orioles entered the second half of the season wanting to take the load off right-hander Brad Brach, who pitched 491/3 innings in an All-Star first half he spent as the setup man in place of the injured Darren O'Day. O'Day is back, but Showalter said that he doesn't have the "usability" he did in the past. That's made Givens much more important.
"We kind of have to pick our spots," Showalter said. "But it's nice to have some depth there. Just because we've done it in the past, it doesn't mean it's going to happen tonight. You've got to earn it and our guys have gone out and earned it every time they've gotten."
Givens was a valuable weapon in this past weekend's series against the Diamondbacks, a team that features a predominantly right-handed lineup. The Orioles face another righty-heavy lineup this week in Toronto, so Givens should be an important piece again.
Showalter has been able to compensate for some of Givens' struggles against left-handed hitters by placing him in situations where he doesn't have to face lefties, even if that means using him earlier in the game.
Left-handed batters are hitting .370 against Givens this season compared to a .158 mark from righties. It's plain to see that lefties are having an easier time picking up Givens' unconventional throwing style.
"The thing I like about Mike is that when he gets a little out of whack for an outing, he gets right back on the horse," Showalter said. "And that's what we've tried [to do], as you've seen, tried to get him right back out there and get back to what they're capable of doing. I think he has such a good feel now for how that happens. Guys go in there and look at stuff when things go well. They look at stuff when things don't go well.
"You've got to be your own pitching coach out there sometimes," Showalter said. "You see him get out of the strike zone for a couple of pitches and all of a sudden he'll make a quality pitch and that's a sign of maturity. It's like Dylan [Bundy] and like [Kevin Gausman]. I can keep naming them. Sometimes we lose sight of how many pitchers we have with not much major league experience."
Learning to incorporate his changeup in certain situations has helped. In the first six weeks of the season, lefties were hitting .529 against him, a number that dropped to .370 at the break and .324 since July 31. Over his past eight outings, lefties are hitless in four at-bats, with one strikeout coming on a changeup. That's obviously a small slice, but still a sign that he's starting to figure out how to pitch to lefties.
It's "just understanding who I am and what kind of pitcher I am, knowing that I'm comfortable throwing from the arm slot I do, and just learning about being up here," Givens said.
Britton said he's seen a different level of aggressiveness from Givens, coming from having more confidence in his pitches and also learning to locate his fastball not only down in the zone, but elevating it to keep opposing hitters off balance.
"The best thing about him, I think, right now is just that he seems more confident going after guys," Britton said. "His numbers against left-handers, I'm almost going to write them off this year because I know he's better than that. Sometimes as a reliever you don't have a lot of opportunity and you struggle right out of the gate. And between lefty-righty, sometimes those numbers get inflated. There were things he needed to make adjustments on to lefties and I think he has. I think that's the best thing, for us to watch him go out there and [be aggressive]. Just this last series, I know Arizona doesn't know anything about him, but to go out there and just attack guys."