At this point in his career, Kyle Gibson has been through it all. He’s experienced an innings limit after his Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and blew past them in later seasons as a workhorse starting pitcher.
He can relate to his fellow Orioles starters, then, with how they feel right about now. When right-hander Tyler Wells was optioned last week to Double-A Bowie — a move designed to offer Wells a break — Gibson listened and offered his own vantage point.
He took Wells back to 2013, in his first full season back from Tommy John, when the Minnesota Twins shut Gibson down for the season by late August.
“I was tired,” Gibson admits now. “And, yeah, I was frustrated. But I was also really tired.”
The plan then was to preserve Gibson for the next decade and more, and it worked. Here he is, pitching important innings for Baltimore, with 200 innings within sight. And, while Wells is in the frustrating period in which he’s not pitching for the Orioles, this too has a wider perspective at play. By preserving Wells now, the Orioles could see him return as a critical piece in the final stretch of the regular season and into October.
It’s not just Wells. Throughout Baltimore’s pitching staff, there are career highs in innings either rapidly approaching or already surpassed. Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer, Grayson Rodriguez, Yennier Cano, Félix Bautista and more — they’re all experiencing what Gibson once experienced.
As the Orioles march toward the postseason, the delicate balance of pushing through career-high innings is aided by the addition of right-hander Jack Flaherty at the deadline. Because the club couldn’t add another relief pitcher, the flexibility allotted by introducing another starter might not alleviate all the stress on a young pitching staff.
But it will give Baltimore options, and those options only multiply in October, when five-man rotations aren’t required.
“Bringing over an extra starter, you can always spill over into the bullpen to help with those innings,” general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias said. “I think now we have several legitimate, accomplished major leaguers, all of whom are having good years right now, and if any one of those five aren’t in the rotation at a given time or given week, we could see fit to deploy them in the bullpen. I just hope and believe this will help us with the innings load down the stretch.”
There will be other additions, too, as the season goes along. Left-handers John Means and DL Hall figure to play a role later this year, with Means recovering from Tommy John surgery and Hall ramping his velocity up after a midseason trip to Florida for strength training.
Hall, one of Baltimore’s top pitching prospects, still forecasts long term as a starter. But his immediate usage will align more with what he was last year: a fireball-throwing reliever. Before a midseason break, Hall’s fastball hovered around 92 mph. In his return to Triple-A Norfolk last week, Hall ramped back up to 98 mph.
Those two arms could shoulder innings that otherwise would be thrown by those already here. But there are other ways manager Brandon Hyde can tackle the starting pitching situation later in the season, particularly with left-hander Cole Irvin already in the bullpen.
“You might have to get creative. You might have to have a guy piggyback. I’ve seen people send a guy to a bullpen and have a bullpen day,” Gibson said. “Well, if you have three starters who are on innings limits in your bullpen, you can do that. It’s tough to have a bullpen day when you don’t have a starter at all down there. So, I think that gives us a lot of flexibility to, one, maybe give the whole bullpen a day off if you say, ‘Hey, you three guys, you got the whole game. Go for it.’ We put ourselves in a really good spot where we can afford that flexibility.”
Baltimore has been cautious thus far, particularly with its relievers.
The temptation is there for Hyde to call upon Bautista consistently in close games, but he hasn’t thrown a reliever in three consecutive games this season. Hyde tries to limit Bautista’s usage to save situations only, and while the right-hander has appeared for more than one inning multiple times this year, that’s a practice Hyde attempts to limit.
Cano, largely in charge of the eighth inning, is running up against a career high in innings as well. And what’s more: Cano has never pitched in as high stress an environment as this one. The between-outing recovery, then, becomes even more vital.
“You prepare for six months, but you really prepare for seven months. That added extra is something our guys are going to have to get used to.”— Orioles manager Brandon Hyde
“Physical preparation has everything to do with it,” Cano said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones, referring to massages and stretching exercises. “As a result, it’s been helping me a lot, and I even feel like I’ve been throwing harder lately.”
Cano has only felt that good because of Hyde’s commitment against overuse. There will be even larger innings as the season progresses, and October will be another level entirely.
The entire pitching staff will feel it. Apart from Flaherty and Gibson, no one else on this staff has experienced postseason baseball and the mixture of fatigue and adrenaline coursing through them on the mound.
“That’s part of the game, too. That’s part of being a major league player,” Hyde said. “We’ve talked about it. You prepare for six months, but you really prepare for seven months. That added extra is something our guys are going to have to get used to.”
To get there — and to go far — players will experience what they never have before. And there could be a fair amount of creativity to maximize what a flexible staff can accomplish.