If this is it for Kyle Bradish in the regular season — and the only thing that would require the Orioles to run him back out there in Sunday’s season finale would be a disastrous losing streak in the interim — his first full season in the majors will go down as one of the best this organization has seen in a generation.
With seven shutout innings in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Washington Nationals, which brought the Orioles to within two games of clinching the AL East title, Bradish lowered his ERA to 2.86 — the lowest by an Orioles pitcher with at least 150 innings in a season since Mike Mussina’s 2.54 in 1992. He’s barely allowing over one baserunner an inning, with his 1.06 WHIP the club’s best since Mussina’s 1995 season.
There have been countless supposed heirs to Mussina over the decades in between. None have put together the kind of season Bradish has.
“He’s just becoming a complete pitcher,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
“It’s incredibly impressive. He competes. It’s a real competitive mindset. He doesn’t think he should get hit. He’s angry at himself when he makes mistakes, and he’s hard to hit. So, when he has it going like he did tonight ... he can shut you out.”
One of those potential heirs to Mussina — Dylan Bundy — was the trade chip the Orioles used to acquire Bradish after the 2019 season. They loved his unique fastball characteristics and pitch mix, and club officials told anyone who would listen that Bradish belonged in the upper echelon of pitching prospects in the organization based on what he did at the team’s alternate training site in 2020.
It turns out they were right.
In terms of the modern game, where strikeouts are the singular pursuit for pitchers, Bradish’s success is a bit different. He’s striking out less than a batter per inning (8.8 per nine), but induces plenty of weak contact on the ground. That was on display Tuesday with his 14 ground ball outs, few of which would qualify as well-hit.
He can command all of his pitches, utilizing his four-seam fastball, curveball, and changeup against lefties while leaning on his sinker and slider against righties. He put together the quintessential Bradish start using them all on Tuesday.
It was a little dicey early, and you wondered whether he had his best stuff. Then, you look up in the sixth inning and he’s cruising. Into the seventh, the same thing. Completing the eighth inning for the first time in his career was a coda to that.
“I didn’t really think he had it going early,” Hyde said. “I thought they took some good at-bats against him, laying off some breaking balls down, but that’s so impressive: late September, pennant race, to go eight shutout innings with not much hard contact the entire night. He’s just got really good stuff.”
Hyde has maintained for a while now that Bradish reminds him of another one-time heir to Mussina in right-hander Jake Arrieta, who blossomed into an ace after the Orioles dealt him to the Chicago Cubs — where Hyde coached — in 2013.
“That reminded me of Kyle last year from a confidence and command standpoint,” Hyde said. “But it’s really similar stuff. The fastballs that go two directions, and the sharp breaking ball, and the presence he has on the mound. Jake was the best pitcher in the game in ‘15 and ‘16, and there’s a lot of similarities.”
Bradish said after the start that he’s still learning what kind of pitcher he is, and how to set up pitches, set up hitters, and read swings. His development has been an ongoing process since he reached the big leagues early last season, though he has been one of the game’s best pitchers for well over a season now.
That, perhaps more than anything else, distinguishes him from so many of the pitchers who the Orioles have tried to slot into their post-Mussina void atop the rotation. Chris Tillman got better as his career went on. Others, like Kevin Gausman, only found success after he moved on from Baltimore. Still more — think Zack Britton — had quite good careers out of the bullpen.
Bradish has done something this year none of them have. He wasn’t drafted by the Orioles, but he became the pitcher he is today here, and that’s one of the game’s best.
The Orioles might elect to use Bradish in some capacity Sunday, even if the division is clinched and there’s nothing to play for, should they decide 10 days between starts is too many. Otherwise, a Game 1 playoff assignment in the American League Division Series awaits.
Every team has a Game 1 starter; not every team has a true rotation topper. And in Baltimore, it’s been 30 years since someone put together a season that gives as strong a claim to that title as Bradish has. Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, and even Bradish’s close friend Dean Kremer might challenge that mantel long-term.
Bradish had to clear a high bar to meet the standard for a season that Mussina set. Everyone that comes after him will be hard pressed to match Bradish’s 2023, too.