By Ethel Hilsenroth, contributor

It’s August, and Richard Bleier‘s ERA this season is 1.56.

That’s after pitching in 31 games for the Baltimore Orioles. A total of 40.1 innings.

How special is that? Well, to put it in perspective, not one other American League pitcher who has pitched 40 or more innings this season has as low an Earned Run Average.

bleier orioles mugNot Craig Kimbrel up in Boston (1.61 ERA, with 25 saves). Not Andrew Miller in Cleveland (1.67 ERA). Not four-time All Star Dellin Betances of the Yankees (2.48 ERA).

Having an exceptionally low ERA is not remarkable for Bleier. After all, as a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University (which has also turned out pitcher Chris Sale), he led the Atlantic Sun Conference with a 2.09 ERA. And in 2015, Bleier had the lowest ERA (2.57) of all minor league pitchers in the Washington Nationals’ minor-league system. As a rookie with the New York Yankees last season, he had a 1.96 ERA in 23 appearances.

But what’s striking about his low ERA, in this age of focus on strikeouts, is how Bleier achieves it. In contrast to Bleier, so far this season Kimbrel has led the AL in strikeouts per 9 innings (among all pitchers who have pitched 40 innings), with an average of 16.32. Betances is second in the league, at 16.20. Miller is a few paces behind, with an average of 13.0.

Bleier? So far this season he has averaged 4.02 strikeouts per 9 innings. That is the absolute worst, dead last, of all pitchers in the AL who have pitched at least 40 innings. And yet when it comes to ERA, Bleier is at the other end of the spectrum.

How does he do it? Pitching to contact. Bleier doesn’t throw the ball past the batter. He throws it to the batter, more or less, encouraging the hitter to take a whack at it. With his excellent control and ball movement, Bleier entices the batter to hit a pitch he expects the batter to go after, but which he has placed where the hitter has the lowest probability of causing damage.

And he serves up his enticing offerings right away. This season, batters he has faced have averaged 3.39 pitches per plate appearance. That’s the second-lowest average among all AL pitchers with at least 40 innings under their belt. At the other end of the spectrum? Kimbrel, with 4.50 pitches per plate appearance.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that in his 2016 MLB debut with the New York Yankees, Bleier retired two Toronto Blue Jays batters on a total of 3 pitches.

Bleier also tricks batters into hitting an abundance of ground balls. For every fly ball hit off him, there are 2.16 grounders. That’s the third-highest grounder rate among A.L. pitchers with 40+ innings recorded.

So for Bleier, when it comes to ERA, these are the best of times. Strikeouts? The worst of times. But at the end of the day, all that matters is how many runners cross the plate, and Bleier is quietly living up to the adage attributed to four-time Cy Young Award-winner Greg Maddux.

“The key to pitching is to have the ability to throw a strike when they’re taking,” Maddux once said, “and throw a ball when the hitter is swinging.”

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Note: “Ethel Hilsenroth” is the pen name of an attorney who writes for Jewish Baseball News.

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