From Human Rain Delay to The Mule: the rise of Pedro Baez

The story of Pedro Baez is a pretty impressive one. Here we are talking about one of the key bullpen elements of one of the perennial top teams in baseball, and yet his path to where he is now is as unorthodox as they come. His is a story of resilience, adaptation and constantly defying the odds with many detractors along the way, including some who were, or should have been, on his side.

In the winter of 2012, after having spent six years in the Dodgers’ minor-league system, Báez was an average third baseman. Having arrived as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2007, he rose through the ranks from rookie ball all the way to Triple-A, albeit without ever setting the world alight with his bat, with his batting average decreasing the higher he went. It was then that the Dodgers decided to turn him into a pitcher, and the rise he would experience in the coming years was not one he or anyone in the organisation could have expected.

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After a season pitching from Single-A to Triple-A with a low walk-ratio and a 100% save record (12 out of 12), the Dodgers called Báez up to the majors in May 2014. He made his debut against the Washington Nationals but gave up a two-run home run to Danny Espinosa in an inning of work in what turned out to be a 4-0 loss. He was then promptly sent back down to the minors but returned two months later to pitch a scoreless inning against the Detroit Tigers before joining the bullpen permanently in August and being part of the postseason roster, even though his only contribution was giving up a three-run home run (two earned) in the Dodgers’ NLDS Game One debacle against the St Louis Cardinals.

It was a case of déja vu in 2015, as Báez once again was thrown into the fire in Game One of the NLDS against the New York Mets. Kershaw departed in the seventh with the bases loaded, two outs and David Wright at the plate. Choosing the Dominican to get the last out was a move justified by his excellent numbers all season long (including 2.51 FIP, righties hitting .245 against him, 1.9 BB/9 – all numbers you’d like to see in that situation), but once again he gave up the key hit, this time a line drive up the middle that scored two runs in an eventual 3-1 loss.

Game Three was worse. He faced three hitters; allowed all of them to reach base, didn’t record an out and they all eventually scored. The Dodgers lost again and were eventually knocked out. October 2016 wasn’t much better. The Dodgers faced the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS and were tied 2-2 in the series entering Game Five at Dodger Stadium. 3-1 down in the score, the Angelenos needed Báez to shut the lively Cubs offence in the eighth inning to give them a chance of a comeback. After another solid season and NLDS against the Washington Nationals (no hits in 3 innings), he seemed like the logical choice. Instead, he gave up two runs off three hits and left the bases loaded after 27 pitches, with all of them coming in to score. The final score was 8-4 to the Cubs, who went on to win the series in Game Six at Wrigley Field.

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So there he was, producing some fantastic numbers throughout the regular season in only three seasons as a pitcher, never mind a major leaguer, yet falling spectacularly when it mattered the most. However, it wasn’t just the postseason performances that had people talking about Báez. In his time in the majors, he’d become notorious for how long he took between pitches, averaging 30.2 seconds between pitches when the league average was 22.7, earning him the dubious honour of being the slowest pitcher in baseball in 2016 and, in the eyes of many, a major contributor to one of the sport’s biggest problems: pace of play (or lack thereof). He ended up with the nickname “The Human Rain Delay”, and when his form dipped drastically towards the end of 2017, his own fans ended up booing him at Dodger Stadium before he even threw a pitch after coming on in relief in a game against the Colorado Rockies. Despite a fierce defence from his manager Dave Roberts, Báez didn’t make the 2017 October roster. And that’s where things started to go right for him.

Ask any Dodger player and they will tell you that Báez is a quiet guy, that he sits in silence in the bullpen and goes out there and pitches when called upon, making no fuss, win or lose. In 2018 he showed extreme resilience putting all of his bad outings behind him and became an integral part of the Dodgers’ bullpen and, dare I say it, somewhat of a fan favourite, a far cry from those boos a year earlier. He threw his fastball a lot less (39%, down from 54% in 2017) and used his slider and sinker more often. Despite the heartbreak of losing the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, Báez had a decent October, giving up just four hits and two runs in 11 innings in the 2018 playoffs. In 2019, he dropped his sinker and developed an effective changeup as his secondary pitch to go with his 96-mph fastball, and it paid dividends quickly, with hitters managing just .157 against it in 102 plate appearances. His overall season numbers were a joy to read, including a .173 batting average against, 0.95 WHIP, .213 BABIP and 0.78 HR/9, even with the juiced ball. His newfound success earned him the new nickname La Mula, the mule, reflecting his work ethic and reliability.

Yes, his 2019 postseason performance against the Washington Nationals was a glimpse of the old Pedro (four hits and one home run in two-thirds of an inning over two games), but the boos have turned into cheers, and he is now one of the squad’s most senior members.

His performances have also made history off the field: this winter, he was the first Dodger in 19 years to win his arbitration case. Entering free agency in 2021, the 32-year-old flamethrower will be looking to continue his excellent form of the past two seasons, always with that quiet, effective and reliable demeanour mules have that turned him from zero to hero at Chavez Ravine.

* All stats retrieved from Baseball Reference.

Aleix Gwilliam is covering the Los Angeles Dodgers during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AleixGwilliam

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