[Baltimore Sun] Five things we learned from the Orioles’ week, from Gunnar Henderson’s inevitable breakout to Kyle Bradish’s promising return

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After a pair of blowout losses to begin their weekend series against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Orioles rallied to win four straight, riding their own offensive explosion against the defending American League Central champion Minnesota Twins.

Here are five things we learned from their 4-2 homestand.

It was only a matter of time before Gunnar Henderson’s production caught up with his exit velocities

Going into the Minnesota series, Henderson’s batting average hovered in the .230s. This belied the fact he was tearing the cover off the ball, with an average exit velocity of more than 95 mph, best on the team.

This was nothing new; Henderson ranked in the 91st percentile of all hitters with a 92 mph average exit velocity in his rookie season but hit .255 because he swings and misses at an above-average rate. Still, he was hitting the ball even harder with worse results through the first two weeks of this season.

This is where all the tracking data available to us — anathema to some fans raised on batting average and RBIs — is genuinely useful. It told us what superficial statistics could not, namely that Henderson is a more dangerous hitter at age 22 than he was at age 21.

Over a four-game span against the Brewers and Twins, balls jumped off Henderson’s bat at 109.9 mph, 101.5, 109.8, 110, 108, 108, 103.8, 108.1 and 103.3. Whatever he hits, he destroys.

No one in baseball is making more ferocious contact, and it was bound to pay off. Henderson went 9-for-16 with three home runs and six RBIs over those Orioles victories.

His maturation is ongoing, as we see from the fact that his walk rate is actually lower than it was last season. But he’s hitting the ball so hard that he’s verging on an elite offensive force, even with the total package still rounding into form.

In an eventful Orioles week, Kyle Bradish’s successful rehab outing might have been the most important happening

The plan was for Bradish to throw three innings and 40 to 50 pitches at Double-A Bowie, with no limitations on his repertoire — a first test against live hitters after months of careful rehabilitation on his sprained ulnar collateral ligament. Fingers were crossed and wood knocked upon in all corners of the organization.

Bradish’s line Tuesday — three scoreless innings, 44 pitches, fastball popping at 96 mph — was all the club’s brain trust could have hoped for. The reports were just as good.

Orioles right-hander Kyle Bradish was sharp in his first rehab start Tuesday. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

“He came off the mound feeling good,” manager Brandon Hyde said Wednesday. “I just saw him this morning as well. He’s excited about his outing, excited about his next rehab start. But the bottom line is he felt good after 40-plus pitches and three innings, and we got reports from some people who were there that his stuff looked really good, so we’re happy.”

It’s terrific news for a pitcher still trying to establish himself as a major league star and for this club’s 2024 upside.

The Orioles have been unbeatable with Corbin Burnes and Grayson Rodriguez on the mound, ordinary when anyone else starts. Bradish, who lowered his ERA from 4.25 to 2.83 over the last four months of last season, is the pitcher with the best chance to extend that dominance to three-fifths of the rotation.

But the club will walk a tightrope with the 27-year-old right-hander, even if he does come back to throw effectively as early as next month. Baseball fans have learned that when the term UCL enters the chat, the story often ends with Tommy John elbow reconstruction. The platelet-rich plasma treatment Bradish received in the offseason might forestall that possibility, as it did for pitchers such as Masahiro Tanaka and Aaron Nola. The worry will linger regardless.

There’s a reason Hyde and general manager Mike Elias have tempered their optimism over Bradish’s progress with notes of caution.

For now, the news around one of the Orioles’ most important players could not be better.

The Craig Kimbrel we’ve seen in Baltimore has flirted with danger hardly at all, allowing just three hits, walking none and striking out 14 in eight innings. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

As Craig Kimbrel reimagines what it means to be a power pitcher, the Orioles reap the rewards

Fans did not exactly shower the city in black and orange streamers when the Orioles signed the 35-year-old Kimbrel to stand in for injured closer Félix Bautista. Though he struck out 12.2 batters per nine innings and made his ninth All-Star team in 2023, there was a feeling that Kimbrel pitched on the ragged edge too often, especially in a pair of poor outings during the NL Championship Series.

It’s early, but the Kimbrel we’ve seen in Baltimore has flirted with danger hardly at all, allowing just three hits, walking none and striking out 14 in eight innings. The only run he gave up resulted from a pair of steals and a sacrifice fly.

FanGraphs writer Ben Clemens posted an intriguing piece on Kimbrel’s hot start, suggesting hitters are taking strikes against him at a probably unsustainable rate. It’s an open question whether his curve can be the dominant finishing pitch it was during his heyday as the game’s best reliever.

But it’s fascinating to hear Kimbrel talk about his evolving notion of what it means to be a power pitcher. Though his 93.5 mph average on four-seam fastballs is almost 5 mph slower than his peak velocity from seven years ago, the world of analytics began opening up to him during his three years with the Boston Red Sox from 2016 to 2018.

“I saw an opportunity to understand who I am and how I pitch,” he said.

Kimbrel has no illusion that he’s still the 24-year-old lightning bolt who struck out 16.7 batters per nine innings in his best season. He’s never going to match Bautista’s 99 mph average fastball.

“I can’t just go out there and rely on 100 mph anymore; that’s a very true statement,” he said. “But at the same time, I can go out there and pitch aggressively with my fastball. Angles that I try to focus on creating, I see as power spin. For a long time, we’ve thought of a power fastball as being one that’s just really hard. I think the more we learn — and analytics is helping with that — power pitches don’t necessarily have anything to do with the velocity of them. It has more to do with the deception, how much decision-making time they feel like they have to hit that pitch.”

In his perfect inning Monday against the Twins, Kimbrel pumped a pair of fastballs, 94.6 mph and 95.2 mph, past hitters for swinging strike threes, illustrating his point that he need not hit triple digits to achieve the same old results.

Billy Wagner was the Atlanta Braves’ closer in 2010, the year Kimbrel reached the big leagues as an overpowering setup man in the same bullpen. That he’s one save from tying Wagner for seventh on the all-time list blows his mind.

“It’s more than cool,” he said. “It’s an honor. Especially now that I have kids, I think about where I was. We have guys like [Jackson] Holliday coming up, and it makes me think about where I was when I was his age. Billy Wagner was the closer when I got my opportunity, so to be sitting here, this close to being right where he was in the saves mark, it’s crazy to think about. It’s been a while, but it flies by, it really does.”

Albert Suárez, receiving a standing ovation at Camden Yards, basked in a day that had seemed unlikely ever to arrive. “I think I’m enjoying this moment more than the first time I got called up,” he said. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)

Albert Suárez is the reason we watch

Cedric Mullins ended the Twins series with a home run over the right field scoreboard after beginning it with a physics-defying catch to rob Minnesota of a run-scoring double. His three-game masterpiece reminded us why it’s sometimes unwise to yearn for the next star from Triple-A instead of enjoying the very good players the Orioles already have.

Not even Mullins’ heroics, however, said as much about baseball’s charm as 5 2/3 shutout innings from a burly Venezuelan who had not thrown a major league pitch in seven years.

The Orioles called Suárez late Tuesday, informing him he’d need to be in Baltimore the next morning to start in place of injured right-hander Tyler Wells. By Wednesday afternoon, Suárez was firing 96 mph fastballs past Twins hitters who’d likely never heard of him.

With so many games in a season and so many holes to fill, you just never know where the story will turn.

Of the Orioles who took the field with Suárez, only one, designated hitter Anthony Santander, had reached the big leagues by 2017, the last time he pitched for the San Francisco Giants. He has since banged around Japan’s Nippon Baseball League, the Korean Baseball Organization and the Venezuelan Winter League. Somehow, he’s throwing harder as a 34-year-old reclamation project than he ever did in his 20s.

He credits the greater hip separation Orioles instructors taught him after he signed with the club in September. The Samsung Lions of the Korean league had dropped him a month earlier after he injured his calf.

“It takes a lot of perseverance,” Mullins said of Suárez’s journey back to a major league mound.

Such stories are rare in any professional sport, nearly impossible in the NFL or the NBA. But the attrition rate for starting pitchers is so high that scouts will literally scour the earth for an arm that might help a club through the season. The Orioles are developing a reputation as expert scavengers.

“That’s an amazing sign right there,” Hyde said, applauding the club’s pro scouting department. “Helped us win a major league baseball game and looks outstanding.”

That was the story on an organizational level. On a human level, Suárez basked in a day that had seemed unlikely ever to arrive. “I think I’m enjoying this moment more than the first time I got called up,” he said.

Orioles rookie Jackson Holliday is 1-for-25 to start his big league career. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

The Orioles’ young hitters present a case study in stages of development

Colton Cowser, accompanied to the plate by a chorus of “moos,” built on his breakout from the previous week with a pair of home runs against the Brewers and a two-hit game against the Twins. He even did damage against left-handers, his chief nemeses throughout his rise as a prospect.

In explaining Cowser’s “huge strides,” Hyde peeled back the curtain on the treacherous web young hitters navigate as they acclimate to the big leagues.

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“He’s definitely more aggressive this year than he was last year when he first got here,” Hyde said. “I think he realized he was 0-2 every count … so then he started being almost overly aggressive. And then he had a tough time kind of finding that balance. And then I think he did a really great job talking a lot about it this offseason with our hitting guys and then kind of simplifying his approach — understanding what he can handle and what he can’t handle, when to be aggressive and when not to. … I love to see him when he strings at strikes.”

Holliday, meanwhile, finds himself stuck in the same hitting quagmire that claimed his pal, Cowser, a year ago. Baseball’s top prospect is now 1-for-25, routinely falling behind in counts and then overcompensating by chasing pitches he cannot hit hard.

“I want him to be ready from the first pitch on to swing at a strike,” Hyde said. “But if it’s not something he can drive, I want him to take it. I think one of his strengths, coming through the minor leagues, is his ability to take a walk and get in hitter’s counts. When I see him getting deeper in the count, there’s a lot of chase there and just trying to do too much to get the ball in play. That’s a young player’s approach of trying to get a hit. I honestly want him to stop trying to get a hit and just try to take a good at-bat.”

He pointed to a plate appearance in which Holliday worked the count to 3-2 and made solid contact on a flyout to left field as a positive example.

The Orioles are an excellent team, off to another winning start, but because they’re largely homegrown, we’re watching key players learn on the job. The epiphanies for Cowser and Jordan Westburg go hand in hand with Holliday’s difficult introduction. For fans who relish taking the entire ride with their favorites, it’s a gold mine.

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