Spokane, WASH. - Richard Bleier is an anachronism. In an era of ever-increasing velocity and strikeouts, the Baltimore Orioles southpaw relies on good old-fashioned guts and guile to survive in the hitter-friendly AL East. In 136.1 big-league innings, Bleier has registered only 62 strikeouts (4.2/9 innings), yet he's managed to post a 7-1 record and maintain a career ERA of just 2.92. In fact, entering this season, Bleier's ERA+ of 220 (a statistic which adjusts for external factors like ballparks and opponents) was the best of any pitcher with at least 100 innings in MLB history. Not too shabby for a guy that had to wait nearly a decade for his first big league audition.
Originally drafted by the Rangers out of Florida Gulf Coast University in the sixth round of the 2008 MLB Draft, Bleier worked as a starting pitcher for the Spokane Indians that summer, posting a 4-5 record and 4.02 ERA. He spent the next three years working his way up the Rangers farm system as a starter, before eventually being converted to a reliever with the Frisco RoughRiders (AA) in 2013.
Bleier posted solid if unspectacular numbers between Double-A and Triple-A in the Rangers organization in 2013-14, and was picked up by the Blue Jays following the season after being released by Texas. The left-hander pitched well between Double-A and Triple-A, but again found himself on the move after the season as he signed with the Washington Nationals.
Bleier returned to a starting role in the Nationals organization and was nothing short of sensational, finishing 2015 with a 14-5 record and 2.57 ERA between two levels. Despite the outstanding season, it appeared Bleier had no clear path to a spot in the Nationals' rotation, so he was on the move again -- this time signing with the Yankees.
He opened the year as a starter in Triple-A before finally, at the age of 29, reaching the majors with the Yankees on May 30, 2016, tossing 0.2 scoreless innings of relief against the Toronto Blue Jays. He remained an important part of the Bronx Bombers bullpen for the rest of the season, finishing with a 1.96 ERA in 23 appearances. Bleier's baseball odyssey wasn't quite finished yet, though.
In spite of his outstanding work in their bullpen, New York designated the southpaw for assignment and ended up trading him to the Orioles in February. Bleier started the 2017 season in the minors before earning a call-up to Baltimore in April, where he served as a key piece of the O's bullpen, posting a 2-1 record and 1.99 ERA in 63.1 innings. He was off to an equally strong start for the Orioles in 2018 (1.93 ERA in 31 games) before a shoulder injury ended his season in June. After a few rough outings to begin this season as he worked his way back from injury, Bleier has once again established himself as a key piece of Baltimore's bullpen--even picking up his first big league save against the Blue Jays on April 1st.
We caught up with Richard to talk about his time in Spokane, his thoughts on the Northwest, and what it felt like to finally step on a big league mound.
What is your best memory for your time in Spokane?
My best memory would be making my professional debut. That was my first stop in my career so it will always be special. We set the bar pretty high with winning it all that year too.
A couple of your Oriole teammates - Chris Davis, Hanser Alberto, Dillon Tate and Craig Gentry (in 2018) - played in Spokane as well. Do you guys every discuss your time in the minors together?
We have talked about our time in Spokane and throughout the Rangers minor leagues. Everyone has such great things to say about their time there.
You're originally from Florida. What did you think of the Northwest?
The weather was amazing. It's completely different from Florida with all the elevation changes and weather differences which made it fun for me to be there.
It took nine seasons and nearly 1,000 minor league innings until you got your first big league call-up with the Yankees in 2016. What kept you motivated all that time? Was it difficult changing organizations so many times?
I knew all I needed was an opportunity to prove I can get outs in the major leagues so I think that kept me going all those years. It is very challenging bouncing around from organization to organization. You have a certain comfort level knowing the players and staff after being there for a while. Learning all the new names and faces is just one more thing to worry about when trying to succeed.
What did it feel like to take the mound for the first time in the big leagues (in pinstripes, no less)?
It was incredible. Really words can not describe the feeling I had running into the game in Toronto for my first appearance. Playing with such a historic and great franchise such as the Yankees made it that much better.
What's the biggest difference between playing in the minors and the big leagues?
It's a completely different baseball game from the majors to the minors. You're pitching against the best hitters in the world every night.
What are your goals for the rest of the season?
I just want our team to win as many games as we can and contribute to as many of those wins as I can.
What piece of advice would you give to young baseball players?
Just believe in yourself. Things aren't always going to go the way you want or you thought they were going to go. If you stick with it and work hard you will accomplish your goals.
Toughest MLB hitter you've faced?
All of them!
Favorite ballpark snack?
Can't go wrong with a quality hot dog
Funniest big league teammate?
Chris Davis is always full of surprises that I get a good laugh out of.
Favorite big league ballpark?
It's tough to pick one. I really enjoy playing at Fenway, Yankee Stadium, and Camden Yards.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.