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Orioles newcomer Jacob Webb emerging as a reliable reliever: ‘They wanted me for a reason’

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In a matter of three days, Jacob Webb went from being rejected by a team with a small chance of making the playoffs to being accepted by one with the best record in the American League.

The Los Angeles Angels acquired three pitchers at the trade deadline, a collection of moves that bumped Webb out of their bullpen plans. He was designated for assignment and subsequently turned down by 13 other clubs during the waiver process.

The lone team in the AL that wanted Webb: the Orioles.

The process of being designated for assignment and changing teams in the middle of the season, Webb said, was a “shock.” He grew up an Angels fan and enjoyed his time with the organization playing alongside all-time greats Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout.

However, the disappointment of being put on waivers quickly turned to excitement once he saw the team that claimed him.

“They picked me up for a reason,” Webb said. “It’s nice to have some confidence behind you.”

That confidence — Webb’s in himself and the Orioles’ in him — is what’s transformed the 30-year-old from a nondescript waiver addition into a reliever manager Brandon Hyde trusts late in games. Webb has yet to allow a run in nine appearances since joining the Orioles on Aug. 9, giving up just two hits in 8 2/3 innings.

“Sometimes things just kind of click for you,” Hyde said. “Webby’s been incredible since he’s been here.”

It’s not difficult to see what’s made Webb effective recently. After struggling with a career-worst 14.3% walk rate as an Angel, he’s issued just two free passes as an Oriole compared with 12 strikeouts. In addition to improved command, Webb has also displayed a devastating changeup — a pitch he virtually stopped throwing at the end of his tenure in Los Angeles.

“If you look at his last few years, it was quite a few walks,” Hyde said. “The command’s been really good since he’s been here, and the changeup’s been amazing.”

After using the pitch 46.1% of the time with the Atlanta Braves in 2021 — his most recent big league season — Webb was promoted to Triple-A this May and was throwing the pitch around 40% of the time. But as the season progressed, his changeup, which moves more horizontally than vertically compared with the average one, was performing worse, causing the Angels to downshift his usage of the pitch.

“I wouldn’t say I completely lost it, but it wasn’t what it is right now,” Webb said. “I was just struggling with it for a little bit, but it comes with also throwing it more. The more you throw it, the more comfortable, the more confident you are in it.”

He used his changeup just 13.2% of the time in July as his performance suffered, posting a 5.40 ERA and 1.60 WHIP in the month. With the Orioles, his changeup usage has increased dramatically, throwing the pitch about 35% of the time over his past five outings. It’s his most-thrown pitch against left-handed batters, who Webb has historically had more success against compared with righties thanks to his changeup.

“They really were adamant wanting me to throw it,” Webb said on his first meetings with Baltimore’s coaching staff. “I was pleased to hear that. It kind of sucks — not saying the Angels took my changeup away or anything — that we shied away from it a little bit instead of maybe working on it a little bit more and using it still even if it’s not at its best.”

While the movement profile on Webb’s changeup doesn’t grade out as a plus pitch, it serves as one when paired with his high-spin 94.9 mph fastball. The .125 batting average against his changeup is the second-best among major league pitchers who have thrown as many as he has.

“I just think having confidence is bigger than having numbers,” Webb said. “If you have confidence in your pitch and how you’re going to execute it, I think more times than not you’re going to execute that pitch.”

Looking at Webb’s body of work as a big leaguer, though, his recent success might not be that surprising. In 117 career innings since 2019, he is 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA and a 1.256 WHIP — more than respectable numbers for a relief pitcher. He ranks in the top 25% in several key metrics, including strikeout rate, whiff percentage, expected batting average and slugging percentage.

He was good enough to pitch in parts of three seasons for the Braves from 2019 to 2021, including in the 2020 and 2021 postseasons. He threw 34 1/3 innings for Atlanta in 2021 but wasn’t on its roster for its World Series victory.

However, his 2022 campaign was the worst of his professional career. He didn’t appear in the majors and posted a 6.06 ERA between Atlanta and Arizona’s Triple-A affiliates. Webb injured his right ankle during the MLB lockout, which bothered him throughout the season. The inability to properly push off the rubber negatively impacted his mechanics, diminishing his velocity and hurting his command. This offseason, he worked to get mobility back in his ankle and rework his lower body mechanics to get back to the pitcher he was with the Braves.

“Last year was my biggest struggle,” Webb said. “My stuff was nowhere near what it is right now.”

Reliever Austin Voth, who joined the Orioles last year after 10 seasons in the Washington Nationals’ organization, said the work Baltimore’s staff did with him after he was claimed off waivers was pivotal in “turning my season around.”

“Just them telling you what they like about you, that definitely gives you a ton of confidence,” Voth said.

Like Voth last year, the Orioles have done the same with multiple relievers this year. They acquired Danny Coulombe at the end of spring training for cash considerations and saw the journeyman become one of the most effective left-handed relievers in the sport.

“Man, on the pitching side of things, they just do a really good job of putting you in positions to succeed, whether it’s a part of the order, whether it’s just the situation,” Coulombe said. “I think that just the pitching department here has been really good and they’ve told us, ‘Hey, go with your strengths, be aggressive, and that’s all we ask of you.’ That’s really helped.”

While the Orioles didn’t have to send the Angels anything to acquire Webb, he’s pitched thus far like the high-leverage reliever the organization didn’t acquire at the trade deadline. With Webb joining a relief corps of Félix Bautista, Yennier Cano, Coulombe, an improved Cionel Pérez and a volatile-but-talented Shintaro Fujinami, the Orioles’ bullpen is perhaps shaping up just in time for the stretch run.

Like Fujinami, who said he was “nervous” when he joined the Orioles from the Oakland Athletics in mid-July, Webb also admitted joining a new organization — a first-place one at that — brings along nerves.

“It can be mentally challenging on any player,” Webb said. “But the biggest thing is just embracing the opportunity.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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