Brandon Hyde didn’t want to use Félix Bautista in a save situation in St. Louis last season.
The Orioles manager quite literally, though, had no other options.
It was a bullpen game, and Bautista, who at the time had been in the major leagues for only a month, was the only arm available.
Bautista was unfazed by the pressure. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning, securing the series win for the Orioles. Now, just over a year later, Hyde doesn’t want to use anyone but Bautista in the ninth inning.
It took Bautista 10 years after he signed his first professional contract to make it to the major leagues. He started to doubt he would ever even make it to Baltimore. But his patience and persistence paid off, and, in just his second major league season, his career is soaring.
Bautista made his debut in April 2022. By August, he was the Orioles closer. And, in just over a week, Bautista will take the field at the All-Star Game in Seattle. He was selected to his first Midsummer Classic on Sunday.
“I feel like Bautista had confidence from the very beginning,” Hyde said. “That’s not normal to be on that track and then all of a sudden be pitching in big league games and thinking you should dominate. And I don’t know if he thought that, but he definitely acted like that on the mound.”
That confidence makes what Bautista does look effortless. He regularly blows pitches by his competition with his triple-digit velocity, and his 1.16 ERA is one of the best in the league.
“When people watch me pitch, they always tell me how easy I make it look,” he said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones.
But this has been anything but a simple journey.
Bautista signed his first contract as a teenager, joining the Marlins as an international free agent. He reported to the Dominican Summer League in 2013 at 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, three inches shorter and 105 pounds lighter than his current stature.
Bautista lasted only a little over two years with the Marlins. He couldn’t throw over 98 mph and wasn’t getting results.
But Bautista, not to be deterred, got to work after he was released. He focused on his strength, specifically his shoulders. He also learned important lessons about rest and recovery, which helped him when the Orioles signed him 18 months later.
“When the time came in 2016, I was ready to go,” he said. “My body felt great.”
He started his time in the Orioles organization back in the Dominican Summer League. This time, his average was 10 runs lower and his strikeout rates double what they were in his previous stint there. He spent two years there before he moved up to the Gulf Coast League in 2018.
And that’s where the trouble started.
Bautista was throwing the ball harder and harder, but it did him no good if it wasn’t in the strike zone. The Orioles player development staff told him not to decrease his speed, believing they could get him to a place where he could command pitches that were over 100 mph. It all came down to maintaining the right spin rate.
“I was just trying to be consistent, continue improving on the things I was already doing,” Bautista said. “It was just a matter of doing that and waiting for the results to come back to me.”
Those results did come. He didn’t walk anyone in the last three games of the season, earning his promotion to short-A for the 2019 season.
Things stalled for him, though, as he continued to flirt with inconsistencies. By 2021 he started to doubt whether he would ever be good enough to pitch in the major leagues. He was entering his eighth minor league season and still had never pitched above High-A.
Something finally clicked. He had a breakout year and jumped all the way to Triple-A in 2021. Bautista was added to the Orioles 40-man roster that offseason.
Now, he just keeps getting better. Bautista has thrown 33 pitches over 100 mph this year, compared to 40 last season. He peaked at 102.5 on June 25 against the Mariners, a personal best for him inside or outside of a game.
And, on July 11, he’ll get to show the world what he can do at the All-Star Game.
“Ever since then, I’ve felt a lot more comfortable and feel a lot better about the work I’ve been able to put together and what I’ve been able to do,” Bautista said of his 2021 season. “Ever since that year, I’ve definitely seen this vision for myself, being able to make it to the All-Star Game.”