Keep the Orioles’ six-man rotation intact for six more weeks, for all I care. Fit John Means onto the staff however you want, and improve the bullpen with DL Hall, Tyler Wells and Danny Coulombe if there’s space. The Orioles have plenty of pitching options to help them secure their first playoff appearance since 2016, and they probably can’t go wrong no matter how they deploy those players.
At some point in this charming on-field season for the Orioles, however, the focus will turn to October. Playoff baseball is a different beast, and it requires not necessarily depth but quality at the top of a pitching staff. In Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles have that. The rest of the season is just about getting them there in good form and mapping out how they’ll get to Félix Bautista at the end of games.
Easier said than done, certainly. There will be near-term headaches navigating a six-man rotation and fitting all those pitchers onto the roster. Those will sort themselves out, because anyone who isn’t performing simply won’t get to stick around. Teams win in October because they have top-flight starters, and even with Rodriguez not at his best Tuesday, the Orioles have two pitchers giving every indication that’s who they’re going to be for them.
Stuff+ is a metric that utilizes velocity, release point, movement and spin rate (among other characteristics) to determine, essentially, how nasty a given pitch is. Considering the leaderboard on FanGraphs features some of the top pitchers in the game, the quality of a pitcher’s stuff clearly correlates to results on the mound. And right in between NL Cy Young contender Spencer Strider of the Atlanta Braves and AL Cy Young favorite Gerrit Cole on the Stuff+ leaderboard at No. 3 overall among qualified pitchers is Bradish at 124 on a scale where every point above or below 100 represents a percentage better or worse than league average.
That number is elevated by his slider, which at 167 on the Stuff+ scale is the second-best individual pitch of any qualified starter behind Yu Darvish’s changeup at 180. In addition to his league-best slider, Bradish’s curveball is third among starters and his changeup is sixth. Bradish, naturally, backs up his high-quality stuff with results. He’s tied with Cole with an AL-best 3.03 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP with 122 strikeouts in 127 2/3 innings, the type of season that provided he sustains it deserves a Game 1 assignment in a playoff series, should the Orioles be fortunate enough to line that up.
Perhaps it’s coincidence that Rodriguez is lined up behind him; based on his stuff since he returned, he should probably stay there come October. He entered Tuesday’s start with a Stuff+ of 128, which is tied for third among qualifiers since the All-Star break. (Bradish’s 129 is second overall, behind Brewers starter Corbin Burnes.)
It’s a testament to the work he did down at Triple-A Norfolk with pitching coach Justin Ramsey that, since his return, every one of Rodriguez’s pitches rated higher on Stuff+ than during his first major league stint, with his slider, changeup and curveball all significantly better. There may be nights like Tuesday, when he battled early and had to grind through six innings, but Rodriguez has shown against playoff-caliber lineups in pretty much all of his starts since returning that he’s ready for that kind of assignment.
The next two spots in the rotation are rightfully up for grabs. Means will likely get a chance, along with Dean Kremer, Kyle Gibson, Jack Flaherty and Cole Irvin. More likely, a handful of them will be moved to the bullpen as part of the bridge to Bautista. Yennier Cano is getting back to his best form, and I fully expect Hall to get a leverage role in the bullpen straight away.
Between that group, the displaced starters, the returning relievers in Wells and Coulombe, and the current group of Mike Baumann, Jacob Webb, Shintaro Fujinami, Cionel Perez and Nick Vespi, the Orioles will have far more options for their October pitching staff than they will spots on it. They may not have the roster room to add him, but they probably should at least be thinking about what prospect Chayce McDermott can add to the mix as he’s dominating Triple-A.
All that is fodder for the month-plus between now and the postseason. Some feelings will probably be hurt along the way as roles are adjusted and playoff plans become clear. To win once they get there, though, they need quality atop the rotation, and just who will provide that quality is becoming clearer by the day.