On an Orioles team that has been a haven for those who haven’t gotten a chance elsewhere, reliever Paul Fry in particular knows that such an opportunity doesn’t come easy and, thus, had to be taken.
When many of the players who are nearing the heights that he is — possibly a closer for the Orioles, but at the very least their most reliable reliever and one of the quietly most effective left-handed setup men in all of baseball — were starring in summer showcase leagues after pitching at big schools in the spring, Fry was out of the game altogether. He was working at a gas station and playing in an adult baseball league to stay sharp.
All that’s just the prologue to the moments that really matter. In Fry’s career, those seem to be imminent.
When the Orioles next maneuver their way to a late lead, manager Brandon Hyde has been loud and consistent that he will have to find a way to use his most consistent reliever to keep it that way. It might be Fry.
‘If I can do it, anybody can do it’
The 28-year-old reliever has found success this year with a narrow focus, but still takes the occasion to look back on all that brought him to the mound on a given night.
“I think that it’s pretty amazing that I’ve been through what I’ve been through, and where I am now, it’s pretty cool to think about,” Fry said. “If I can do it, anybody can do it type thing, going the [junior college] route, never highly scouted by Division I schools or anything like that.
“It’s just crazy to think about it — a kid from Waterford, football player turning to baseball and going to a junior college and getting drafted. I still think back and get chills sometimes.”
Football was Fry’s first love growing up on a cul-de-sac in Waterford, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, and he found baseball almost by accident. He stopped playing after coach-pitch Little League but returned to the game in high school and made the freshman team as an outfielder who couldn’t hit — to the extent that his team let the pitcher hit and used the designated hitter instead.
“I would just be the fielder,” he said. But his football background and a daily routine of playing a long game of catch with his neighbor on their dead-end street built up some arm strength, and before his senior year, he pitched in a summer league game for the first time.
He was so green that when a runner took off from first base, Fry balked and started walking toward him. Luckily, he got away with it, and things got better from there.
He could have pursued small-college football, but a late offer to play baseball came from Michigan’s St. Clair County Community College out at the bottom of Lake Huron. Fry pitched his freshman year, but said he made “some poor choices” regarding academics and ended up ineligible to play his sophomore year.
“I worked at a gas station during that time and paid my scholarship back and played a men’s league in the summer that year,” he said.
It was something of a crossroads, and one Fry said he grew from. Scouts had slowly but surely started to grow interested. He was pitching in the high-80s with his fastball with the self-taught slider he still throws and a knuckleball he would use as a changeup but later shelved in pro ball. He got stronger during his year away and gained confidence pitching against the older players in men’s league, returning after his missed season to strike out 97 in 55 innings with a 1.80 ERA in 10 starts.
‘The rest was history’
The Seattle Mariners took him in the 17th round of the 2013 draft. But Fry quickly learned that just because he was drafted it didn’t mean there were plans for him.
After his first spring training, he didn’t make a full-season team and spent a month in extended spring training — an ominous sign for a college draftee.
“That was kind of a thing of, ‘OK, what does that mean?’” Fry said. “Looking back, I needed to tweak just a little bit. I ended up asking my pitching coordinator [Terry Clark] later on when I was in Double-A, I was like, ‘Hey, why did I stay in spring training that one year?’ And he said, ‘Well, to be honest with you, you went from suspect to prospect.’ The rest was history after that.
“The next year, I went from High-A to Double-A. I was in Triple-A in my third full season. I feel like I flew kind of after that.”
The Mariners protected him from the 2016 Rule 5 draft after that Triple-A season, and he’d just signed a lease back in Tacoma with hopes of eventually commuting up the interstate to Seattle as a big leaguer before he was designated for assignment off the roster and sent into limbo. He was engaged to his now-wife, Paige, at the time, and said they just sat in an empty apartment for a week waiting for what was next.
They were on the homecoming court in high school and have been together since. Fry says he can “100% say I wouldn’t be here without her,” and it was during that period off the Mariners roster when the Orioles traded for him. He was in the high minors in 2017 and eventually debuted in 2018.
Fry pitched well in 2018, with his ERA never exceeding four and finishing at 3.35. In 2019, though, he struggled as the Orioles began this new phase of their rebuild under a new front office and coaching staff. All Hyde wanted at the time was pitchers he could count on, and Fry was inconsistent in his first full big league season.
“I wasn’t as mature as I am now, I guess, on the mound, mentality-wise, confidence-levels and stuff like that,” Fry said. “The game would speed up on me sometimes, and it still does at times. It’s just how, how do you control that and how can you manage that?”
‘I’m going to live every moment for the moment’
Two developments ahead of the 2020 season helped sharpen his mind and make him more effective. He and Paige welcomed their son, Forrest, in October 2019, which Fry said gave him “a lot of perspective,” to say nothing of the little bit of dad strength that might account for his velocity creeping up.
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“I know I’ll have a life outside of baseball, so now I’m going to live every moment for the moment and live in the present and take every opportunity that I have here and run with it,” he said.
On the mound, he fixed a long-standing problem of holding his glove open while set before his delivery, showing the runner at second base what he was throwing. That allowed him to change his hand position and improve his direction to the plate, too, and he came into summer camp last year well-practiced in the new changes after the shutdown.
He had a 2.45 ERA in the shortened 2020 season, but really felt as if he arrived this spring — when the results were disastrous. He went to Hyde’s office to assure him that he was going to be OK, and the manager told him he knew it would be. Fry said being able to block out the noise and focus on getting himself right flipped a switch.
Since then, he’s been largely lights-out, with 16 of 19 scoreless outings and a 2.50 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP and 26 strikeouts in 18 innings. Hyde has singled him out of late as the Orioles’ most reliable reliever, someone he’s going to put in high-leverage situations at any time, including possibly save opportunities.
“Two years ago, I’d put a guy in and had no idea what to expect a lot of times, and there are some guys who have improved,” Hyde said recently. “Paul Fry’s really improved. … I think Paul Fry has really turned the corner in his career, on what it takes to be a real solid bullpen piece.”
For Fry, who wants to be part of the long-term solution in the Orioles’ rebuild — whether it’s to help eventually win games or bring younger assets to the organization in a trade — those words mean a lot.
“I’ve always wanted someone that trusts me on the mound,” Fry said. “It’s a good feeling to know that the manager has your back and trusts to put you out there. For me, it’s just another thing that gives me confidence and goes toward my mentality even more.”