Orioles right-hander Mychal Givens is still new to certain nuances of relief work. He has less than 40 innings of major league experience, and this is just his fourth season pitching since converting from a middle infielder.
But Givens realizes that his success in the Orioles bullpen will depend on his ability to throw both his mid-90s fastball and his slider for strikes in any count.
"Just being confident in my command" is important, Givens said. "And being able to go out there and me, starting as a pitcher in '13, [trying] to develop each pitch and [get] the consistency" with it.
Last year, when Givens made the jump from Double-A Bowie, he was relatively unknown. His unconventional delivery and powerful fastball could get hitters out in the early going, but he's learning this season that leaning on his slider, and throwing it for a strike, can make him more dangerous out of the bullpen.
"It's big, especially out of the bullpen," Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. "Givens actually has three pitches [including his seldom-used changeup], but you can be a two-pitch guy if you're confident enough to throw either pitch at any time. I think [setup man] Darren [O'Day has] done a great job in showing him that whatever pitch you're throwing out of the bullpen, you better be able to get an out. If you don't feel you can throw a strike with it, it probably shouldn't be one of your pitches."
In the Orioles' 8-3 win over the Kansas City Royals on Saturday night, Givens entered a four-run game with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning. And against a fastball-feasting Royals lineup, he knew his slider would be important.
He leaned on the pitch more than he ever has at the major league level, especially in striking out catcher Salvador Perez and second baseman Omar Infante to escape the bases-loaded jam.
On Saturday, he worked ahead of both hitters by establishing the slider early. Givens got ahead of Perez, 1-2, with three straight sliders, including a first-pitch called strike and a swinging strike on the third pitch of the at-bat. After Perez fouled off three of the next four pitches, seeing three straight fastballs, Givens finished him off with a slider.
Givens threw seven straight sliders to Infante, including a full-count, back-foot slider. He got ahead of Infante, 0-2, with a pair of sliders — a first-pitch called strike and a foul ball.
"[I] developed that slider last year," Givens said. "That's what helped me last year with my strikeout rate. It helps with my fastball, just being able to do that and having the confidence to do that to Perez 2-2 and Infante 3-2 in a tight situation, just going out there and having the confidence and going out there and attacking."
Givens retired all four batters he faced, and threw sliders on 13 of 19 pitches.
“I have confidence in all of his pitches he can throw there, but it’s something where when you have a really aggressive fastball-hitting team, it’s important to have some kind of off-speed pitch you can throw,” Wieters said. “And I think he threw probably three or four to Salvador and probably about six or seven to Infante. That speaks to how good of fastball hitters they are, but there’s always a counterbalance that a pitcher can go to, especially if he can command it and throw it for strikes like he did.”
After Givens debuted with a 1.80 ERA in 30 relief innings last year, holding batters to a .185 average, he struggled early this season, allowing three runs in his first two outings. He allowed five hits over two innings in that span; hitters seemed to be sitting on his fastball, knowing he struggled to throw his slider for a strike.
He's beginning to incorporate the pitch more — its usage is up from 18 percent his first month in the majors to 36 percent this month — and, more importantly, throwing it in more high-leverage counts for a strike.
After Saturday, Givens has seven consecutive scoreless outings, yielding just four hits in seven innings with 13 strikeouts and four walks. Numbers aside, Wieters said he's seeing Givens develop more confidence in his arsenal.
"I think more than anything, no matter what fingers go down, he's got to the place where he knows, 'I can throw this pitch,' " Wieters said. "Anytime you have success, that's why having experience at this level is so important, because the success you have, you can use it in the next outing and the next tough situation, no matter when it is.
"And I think that's the thing with all young players, whether they're position players or pitchers. You can see that when you do something a little bit from the norm and have success with it, it gives you that comfort level to do something that may not be by the books, but it's something that needs to be done at a certain time."