When a team like the Orioles grabs a pitcher who has fallen off another club’s roster, it often quickly finds out why he didn’t make the grade elsewhere. But for that reason, the ones who last can be sources of endless fascination.
For years, Richard Bleier filled that role for the Orioles, at least until his early-morning trade Saturday to the Miami Marlins for a player to be named. Before him, it was All-Star Darren O’Day.
Bleier’s departure, though, comes at a time when the Orioles seem to have found someone else who can thrive in that role: Cole Sulser.
Manager Brandon Hyde gave Sulser, a season-ending waiver claim in September from the Tampa Bay Rays, a save opportunity against his former club Friday.
It was just one day after Sulser allowed a three-run home run to New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge to bring about an Orioles loss, but such is the team’s confidence in Sulser that he got a chance to redeem himself quickly — and did.
“Gutsy,” Hyde said. “Gutsy performance. [Thursday] night was a tough loss. We talked about it here today a little in my office and I told him if I had the opportunity again I was going to throw him out there to try to bounce back from that. He’s a high-character guy. I don’t know him very well, but I do know in our short time with him is he’s a tough kid, and he showed a lot of toughness tonight.
“Last night was rough, and you’re watching it on TV and it’s on every highlight. He doesn’t have a whole lot of major league time and hadn’t had to experience that really. For him to go through that and come back today and get three outs against a good club at the end of the game, that was big.”
On Sunday, Sulser earned his third save of the season with two scoreless innings.
Like Bleier, Sulser has pitched plenty, even if his major league opportunity didn’t come quickly. Sulser was originally a farmhand for the Cleveland Indians before the Rays acquired him in December 2018. By the time he debuted with the Rays at age 29, he’d appeared in 225 minor league games and pitched 444⅓ innings.
He had seven scoreless innings with the Rays last September before they took him off the roster, and once the Orioles claimed him, they showed how they regarded him by keeping him on the roster all winter.
His appeal comes from how he’s developed as a pitcher late in his career. The methods aren’t a coincidence. A Dartmouth graduate, Sulser holds two engineering degrees from the Ivy League school, and said the wave of technology in the game with radar-based data tracking systems like TrackMan and Rapsodo providing information and feedback to pitchers has helped him reinvent himself.
“It played a major role,” Sulser said last week. “I’m kind of an analytical-mind type of guy. I studied mechanical engineering in college. My background works a lot better with hard numbers and facts. For me, it was an easy transition.
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“I always had a tougher time wrapping myself around, ‘My catcher and pitching coach said it was good, but how much better was it than something else?’ For me, getting to see hard numbers using technology like Rapsodo and TrackMan was a tremendous help. It just made it easier for me to go out with confidence. I wasn’t taking someone’s word for it, but had data to back it up.”
When Hyde discussed Sulser in the spring and in the team’s summer camp, he lauded his ability to throw strikes, the ride on his four-seam fastball up in the zone, and the movement his slider and split-fingered fastball have to either side of the plate. The Orioles value all of that under executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and director of pitching Chris Holt, and so too did the Indians and the Rays.
“Earlier in my career, I was going with a lot of conventional words of wisdom and conventional pitching methods — trying to get swings and misses with breaking balls down and away, and trying to throw my fastball low in the zone,” Sulser said.
“And as I started to understand more about the metrics of my pitches themselves, I started to be able to use them in ways that provided greater value for how they move and perform.”
His first outing with the Orioles was a six-out save Sunday in Boston. The Orioles have had three save situations this season, and he’s been given all three, though Hyde said that no one has settled into roles yet and that Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens will be in the mix if a save situation comes against right-handed parts of the lineup.
Hyde said Sulser is a “reverse-split guy” because of the way his split-fingered fastball works against left-handers. That Sulser has the faith to close out wins for the Orioles, though, bodes well for him if he can continue to show what he did Friday.
“I think we’re still learning our guys,” Hyde said. “We’re less than a week in. We just don’t have a ton of experience. You look at the experience in our bullpen, these guys haven’t pitched in the major leagues very much. I think that we’re going to mix and match.”