If the Orioles’ bullpen is going to improve in 2022, it’s possible the best additions toward that effort are already in the organization: the pre-trade deadline versions of Paul Fry and Tanner Scott.
Through the first few months of 2021, they formed one of baseball’s top left-handed relief tandems, and each was a candidate to be moved for prospects. Entering July 30 — the day of the trade deadline — Fry and Scott had combined for a 3.28 ERA, striking out nearly 13 batters per nine innings with their respective fastball-slider combos. But as Baltimore held onto them through the deadline, they combusted from there. They had ERAs in the double-digits and struggled with command, while neither managed to strike out at least a batter an inning.
Both left-handers are eligible for salary arbitration for the first time this offseason, with MLBTradeRumors.com projecting Fry to get a raise to $1.1 million and Scott’s salary to increase to $1 million. Those figures would’ve made them the highest-paid members of the Orioles’ 2021 pitching staff.
They spent much of the year performing worthy of that distinction, serving as two of the few relievers manager Brandon Hyde could routinely depend on. Fry, 29, carried a sub-2.00 ERA into mid-June, getting a taste of the closer’s role. Scott, 27, finally seemed to be deploying his dynamic stuff without the control issues that had oft plagued him. Yet when his season ended because of a left knee sprain, his ERA was 5.17. Fry, spending the season’s final month in Triple-A because of his struggles, finished the year with a major league ERA nearly a run higher than Scott’s at 6.08.
In Fry’s case, the cause of his numbers spiking was evident to anyone watching: He stopped throwing strikes. His tale of two seasons has largely been looked at symmetrically; in his first 26 appearances, his ERA was 1.78, while over his final 26 outings, that figure was 11.05. But most of that damage came in Fry’s final 10 games for the Orioles.
After a scoreless outing to open August lowered his ERA to 3.24, Fry spent the rest of the month allowing 17 earned runs while recording 17 outs. Having given up only one extra-base hit all season, he surrendered five, including three home runs, in 5 ⅔ innings. He issued 15 walks against three strikeouts.
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Fry’s troubles seemed to largely derive from difficulty throwing his fastball for strikes. Before his demotion-causing stretch, he had thrown his fastball for a strike nearly two-thirds of the time, according to MLB’s Statcast data, but over those 10 outings, that pitch’s strike percentage was marginally over 50%. When Fry threw a fastball out of the zone, batters chased only one of every 20, compared to more than one-in-six entering.
That led to greater problems with his slider. Through that first August outing, Fry’s breaking ball had limited batters to a .143 average, with a double in May accounting for the only extra-base hit off it. But with his lacking fastball command, opposing batters could sit on the slider; in those 10 appearances, they swung at sliders in the zone 20% more frequently than they did prior, and Fry allowed a .714 average and 1.286 slugging percentage off that pitch.
He was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk after a four-run, one-out appearance Aug. 29 and spent the next month-plus there, walking nine batters and allowing seven runs in eight innings.
As Fry’s struggles began, Scott was on the injured list, one of two stints his knee sprain caused. He returned in the minimum 10 days, but the knee seemingly continued to bother him, with the Orioles shutting him down for the same injury in mid-September.
Over the two outings leading into his first IL stint — in which he faced seven batters and retired none — and the 14 that followed it, Scott had an 11.77 ERA. He allowed four homers in 13 innings, twice as many as he’d given up in 41 prior innings, and struck out 11, compared to 59 beforehand.
While dealing with the knee injury, Scott deployed his wipeout slider less. In his strong opening four months, he used his two offerings almost evenly, but around the IL trip, he threw his fastball nearly twice as often as his slider. Scott has historically struggled throwing his fastball in the zone, and although those rates after the injury were similar to those from before it, the increased frequency of the pitch meant he was behind more often. As a result, the chase rate on his slider declined by nearly 10%. After limiting batters to a .194 batting average and .215 slugging percentage with his slider entering the day before the deadline, Scott ended the season with a stretch in which they hit .385 and slugged .718 off it.
If the Orioles tender contracts to Fry and Scott and they show in the spring they’ve recaptured their early season form, it’s possible many of the spots in Baltimore’s opening day bullpen could already be secured. The pair of lefties would join apparent locks Tyler Wells, Cole Sulser and Dillon Tate, while Jorge López figures to land among this group if the Orioles also retain him through arbitration. Each of those pitchers, like Fry and Scott, had stretches of success in 2021. Making them frequent and extended, and the dips far less dramatic, would bode well for Hyde’s options in 2022.