Baltimore Orioles: Is Félix Bautista’s Success Sustainable?
With the Orioles down to their final strike on Thursday night, rookie Kyle Stowers blasted a solo home run off White Sox closer Liam Hendriks to tie the game and send the rubber match into extra innings. O’s closer Félix Bautista then entered the game in the tenth inning and did not give up a run in two innings pitched despite inheriting a runner at second base in each inning and the Orioles went on to win 4-3 thanks to a walk-off single by Anthony Santander.
These two clean innings pitched by Bautista follow a five-out save on Tuesday by a pitcher who was forced into the closer’s role after the trade of Jorge Lopez at the trade deadline. Of course, Bautista has been excellent all season, pitching to a 1.62 ERA and 248 ERA+ in 56 games during his rookie season. This leads to the question that will be critical not only for the playoff push but also for upcoming seasons: Is this success sustainable?
As a prospect, Félix Bautista was considered somewhat of an afterthought in the O’s system. He did not make his MLB debut until April 10th in mop-up duty of an 8-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. He was 26 at the time of his debut and had spent nearly ten seasons in the minors between the Marlins’ and O’s organization. He spent six of these seasons in rookie ball and did not earn a promotion to Single-A until 2019 when he pitched to a 3.44 ERA in 36.2 innings between Delmarva and Aberdeen. However, 2021 was a breakout season for him where he pitched to a 1.54 ERA in 46.2 innings pitched across three levels.
Will mountainous Orioles closer Félix Bautista become a permanent bullpen fixture?
Despite the successful results, command was an issue throughout his minor league career which made a successful MLB career seem somewhat unlikely. In 2019, Bautista walked 5.6 batters per 9 innings pitched and that increased to 5.8 per 9 innings in 2021. For context, only three relief pitchers in all of baseball have walked more than 5.8 batters per 9 this season, including former Oriole reliever Tanner Scott.
It is difficult for relievers to be successful when they walk nearly a batter an inning which is why Felix was rarely used in high-leverage situations early in the season. Of course, strikeouts were a strength of his throughout the minors. In 2021, Bautista struck out 14.9 batters per 9 innings, nearly two batters per inning. Only two relievers, Edwin Diaz and Josh Hader, have had a higher K/9 rate in the Majors this season.
Of course, if you have followed the Orioles closely, you know that the walks have not been an issue this season but his strikeout numbers continue to impress. The improved command has obviously been the key to this as well as his deceptive splitter that pairs nicely with his triple-digit fastball. There are some concerning trends that suggest a regression to the mean could occur soon.
The Orioles outfield defense provides Félix Bautista with plenty of backup
For one, Bautista gives up a lot of hard contact. He has given up a barrel percentage that ranks in the 18th percentile. Essentially, this means that 82% of pitchers in baseball have been better at avoiding the sweet spot of the bat than Bautista and barrels often lead to home runs or extra-base hits.
One caveat is that Felix does not give up much contact which inflates the barrel rate because one barrel hurts his rate more than it would for most other pitchers. The hardest hit ball he gave up this season was 115.7 miles per hour. Less than six percent of pitchers have given up a ball that traveled that quickly this year. That is concerning because it has caused him to give up more than one home run per nine innings which has been his biggest weakness.
Paired with the high exit velocity and home run rate, Bautista has given up an extremely low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) at .214. BABIP is not usually considered a skill stat but more closely correlates with luck. A low BABIP usually indicates good luck for a pitcher and bad luck for a hitter. A “neutral” BABIP is usually around .300 so a .214 BABIP is noticeably low. There are many factors that also contribute to this including defense, shifts, and other external conditions.
The low BABIP is helped by the movement towards constant shifts throughout baseball but also the strong outfield that typically consists of Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Ryan McKenna when Bautista is in the game. This is not to say that Bautista is much worse than he has pitched. He has a 3.05 FIP and 2.73 expected ERA which is both higher than his 1.62 ERA but not extraordinarily so.
On the positive side, Bautista has essentially the fastest average fastball in baseball combined with a high spin rate and good command that makes him tough to hit. He ranks in the 99th percentile, 97th in strikeout percentage, 94th in expected batting average, 93rd in expected ERA, and 91st in whiff percentage. In layman’s terms, Bautista could be considered the most dominating relief pitcher in baseball behind Diaz. Orioles fans know this already because we have seen him dominate all season but statcast data backs up what we have seen.
In conclusion, Felix Bautista is quite good at baseball. There are some areas where fans can be reasonably concerned that luck may run out soon and this can lead to some painful situations with closer but the statcast data shows that he has been genuinely dominant all season and should continue this domination. For next season, as long as his command continues to be strong then it can be expected that he will have another strong season. If MLB decides to ban the shift next season that could also cause some issues as ground balls that have previously been hit at infielders may instead find outfield grass.