How Orioles reliever Danny Coulombe used his ‘sneaky’ arsenal and a keen sense of self to become a top reliever – The Denver Post



The Orioles’ two best relievers are so because they have two dominant pitches. Their third best is so because he doesn’t have one.

Danny Coulombe, unlike Félix Bautista, Yennier Cano and most of baseball’s top relievers, doesn’t have one or two pitches that define who he is. He doesn’t have Bautista’s gravity-defying fastball or devastating splitter, nor does he have Cano’s ground-and-pound sinker or his screwball-esque changeup.

Instead, Coulombe is having the best season of his nine-year MLB career and is one of the sport’s top left-handed relievers thanks to an unconventional six-pitch arsenal — one he’s crafted by developing a keen sense of self.

“I think that half the battle is figuring out who you are and what makes you good and doing that as much as you can,” Coulombe said.

Before this season, Coulombe’s career had been marred by arm-slot changes, mechanical tweaks, pitch-mix tinkering and an injury. Year by year, Coulombe’s mechanics would change — sometimes to create more deception, sometimes to increase velocity. He’d lower his arm slot when his team at the time wanted him to throw more sinkers, then he’d bring his arm slot back up when a new team wanted him to rely on his four-seamer and curveball.

Throughout the adjustments, Coulombe had periods of success, including in 2017 with the Oakland Athletics and in 2021 with the Minnesota Twins. But he also struggled, like at the beginning of his big league career in 2014 and 2015 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 2019 when he was stuck in the minors with the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers, or last year when a change in his delivery aimed at increasing velocity resulted in a torn hip labrum that ended his season in May and caused him to question if he’d ever pitch in the majors again.

Despite the odyssey that brought him to Baltimore, his sixth organization, Coulombe said he always believed a season like this was somewhere inside him.

“No doubt,” Coulombe said. “It’s about understanding who you are as a pitcher. I kind of lost my way a little bit with the A’s where I started throwing from a lower slot. It wasn’t until 2021 and 2022 when I figured out, this is what I’m good at, like this is my natural motion, this is how I should be throwing. I lost a few years in my career in 2018 and 2019, really, just trying to figure out how to throw harder. I was chasing velocity, but that’s just one component. Knowing who you are as a pitcher is the most important thing.”

The Orioles acquired Coulombe from the Twins, who Baltimore hosts at Camden Yards for a three-game series this weekend, at the end of spring training for cash considerations. The 33-year-old journeyman hadn’t pitched a full season in the majors since 2017 and was coming off a surgery that also involved shaving down the ball of his left hip to reduce the likelihood of another impingement.

After a smooth surgery, a full offseason, a solid spring and a change of scenery, he quickly became Baltimore’s top lefty out of the bullpen and one of manager Brandon Hyde’s go-to relievers in high-leverage spots. In 27 2/3 innings, Coulombe has a 2.28 ERA and a 1.048 WHIP with 37 strikeouts.

He hasn’t just been a key member of the Orioles’ relief corps, though. He’s been one of the best relievers in the sport in several key metrics, especially among southpaws. His 0.9 wins above replacement on FanGraphs ranks fourth among left-handed relievers, while his 26.5% strikeout-minus-walk rate is second.

He ranks in the top 10% among all qualified pitchers in average exit velocity, strikeout percentage, expected batting average, chase rate and hard-hit percentage, according to Baseball Savant as of Thursday afternoon. In 2017, his last full season, he ranked in the bottom 40% in all those metrics, which are calculated by Statcast tracking data.

This year, no qualified pitcher in the major leagues has a lower average exit velocity than Coulombe’s 82.7 mph, which is nearly 6 mph better than league average. He also ranks first with a 17.9% hard-hit rate — about half the league average of 36.1%. His 32.7% strikeout rate is better than Toronto Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano; his 29.7% whiff rate is better than Kenley Jansen and Clay Holmes, the closers for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, respectively; and his 34.5% chase rate is better than Bautista, whose strikeout numbers are on pace to shatter records.

“Strikeouts are a funny thing,” said Coulombe, whose strikeout percentage is 10 points better than in his 192 2/3 innings before this year. “They come in bunches. Unless you’re Bautista, then they always come.”

These numbers are even more impressive when considering Coulombe’s fastball averages an underwhelming 91.5 mph — more than two ticks below league average. Instead, the wily lefty is enjoying a breakout season because of a pitch mix that few in the majors have.

Coulombe has thrown six pitches at least 10 times (or 2%), but it’s the makeup of that arsenal that is unusual. Three of the six pitches are breaking balls, with his slider (45.4%), sweeper (22.7%) and curveball (10.3%) among his four most common offerings, in addition to his sinker (10.7%), four-seam fastball (8.8%) and changeup (2.1%). The slider is Coulombe’s best pitch, while the sweeper is his newest addition.

“He blew my thumb up the first time I played catch with him,” said fellow left-handed reliever Keegan Akin, who is Coulombe’s catch partner. “Very good stuff. It might not light up the radar gun, but it definitely gets on you. The depth perception, just how the ball comes out — it’s sneaky. You can’t see the rotation of the ball, and everything looks the same and it goes everywhere. It’s definitely some elite stuff.”

In today’s game, a pitcher mixing six pitches isn’t that abnormal. Orioles starters Kyle Gibson and Dean Kremer, for example, both have six-pitch mixes. But a relief pitcher having that many offerings, is different. The only other left-handed reliever in the majors to use six pitches at least 2% of the time is Detroit’s Tyler Holton. No active left-handed pitcher with more than 10 innings pitched sports a slider, a sweeper and a curveball.

“It’s nice to have more options,” Coulombe said. “I’ve been spinning the ball well and I rely on that a lot.”

That deviation could also be why Coulombe isn’t just a left-handed specialist. While Hyde often brings him in for “lefty pockets” in the lineup, he’s also been effective against right-handed hitters. Lefties are hitting .214 with a .512 OPS off Coulombe this year, while righties have a .210 batting average and a .612 OPS.

His unorthodox pitch mix is never more noticeable than when he’s facing right-handed hitters in high-leverage spots. Twice this season Coulombe has gone against Tampa Bay Rays slugger Randy Arozarena, a 2023 All-Star starter who crushes left-handed pitching almost as much as he’s dominated the Orioles, in one-run games with runners on base.

The first time, Coulombe entered with the winning run at the plate and struck out both Arozarena and lefty-masher Harold Ramirez, tossing seven breaking balls (three sliders, two sweepers and two curveballs). He faced Arozarena again last week with runners on the corners, throwing him two sweepers, a slider and a curveball to induce an inning-ending popup. The Orioles won both games over the American League East-leading Rays.

“I feel like he’s got weapons to go against right-handers. … He’s done a great job of getting both sides out,” Hyde said. “He’s been amazing for us.”

Twins at Orioles

Saturday, 4:05 p.m.


Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM



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