Armed with reams of minor league pitch data, Lance Brozdowski sat down last month and dug into a season’s worth of emerging trends.
The Orioles’ full-season minor league pitchers, he found, were among the leaders in ERA and led all organizations in fielding-independent pitching (FIP), a statistic that replicates a pitcher’s ERA based on facets of performance within his control — strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.
It was curious, though, that no outlier pitch characteristic or usage trend emerged to explain that success — nothing like the sinker-heavy Mariners, slider-heavy Yankees, or the four-seam fastballs the Dodgers favor to explain their impressive results. Perhaps, then, the Orioles’ success was based on the individualized approach that every team aspires to and claims to have but few actually achieve.
“The Orioles might be in that area of, ‘We’re the Goldilocks team. We’re actually able to play to every player’s strengths.’” said Brozdowski, a player development analyst for Marquee Sports Network. “It’s just a theory — a working theory — and I think it has some merit in the data.”
However it’s defined, their pitching development progress is starting to draw attention. With Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez and Félix Bautista already starring in the majors, the Orioles are confident that more success will soon filter up from their farm system to the big league mound — perhaps sooner than anyone would expect.
“When you talk about individualizing, that’s how you individualize — by having good information, knowing what your North Stars are and, for every single player, trying to optimize what they do,” said Matt Blood, the Orioles’ director of player development.
Blood didn’t go into specifics as to what those North Stars are — only “what plays at the major league level.” However it’s evaluated, the Orioles have plenty of bright spots that illustrate their progress on the farm.
Through Sunday’s games, 48 pitchers aged 25 or younger logged over 30 innings for an Orioles full-season affiliate this season. Of that group, 38 struck out over a batter per inning, while 39 members of that 48-pitcher cohort have swinging strike rates above the major league average of 11.1%.
They’re about more than swing-and-miss stuff, though. The organization has an internal grading system based on their intended pitch location and where a certain pitch type plays best — a four-seam fastball at the top of the zone or a low-and-away slider, for example.
“I have 100 percent confidence that what we’re doing is above the average and above the norm in professional baseball,” said Chris Holt, major league pitching coach and director of pitching. “Weapons on their own are good, but in terms of major-league success, the consistency of commanding those pitches for strikes and nonstrikes is everything, because without command it’s difficult to attack with a plan for those. That’s our dual focus — improving weapons, and improving command of those pitches.”
Combine those two factors and much of the Orioles’ minor league success on the mound comes into focus. The MLB average WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) this year is 1.315; 20 of those 48 Orioles pitching prospects are below that.
The MLB average ERA is 4.34 this season; 23 Orioles minors pitchers are below that this year, with 24 below that based on FIP and xFIP.
The origins of that group of pitching prospects isn’t exactly traditional, either. Before this year’s draft, the Orioles hadn’t drafted and signed a pitcher above the fourth round since Rodriguez in the 2018 draft, instead opting to fill out their farm system’s pitching ranks with trade acquisitions, later-round pitchers, and international signees.
“While it might not be as ‘famous’ in terms of the names or whatnot, we’ve shown that the pitching side is actually doing a very good job of developing players that we have,” Blood said.
Given the stunning draft returns they’ve had on the hitting side, the process of building success on the mound has been more deliberate. Before he had a major league manager in place in late 2018, executive vice president Mike Elias brought over Holt from the Astros to lead pitching development for the Orioles. Holt’s first wave of hires included indispensable Triple-A pitching coach Justin Ramsey and Adam Bleday, a former Astros minor league pitcher.
When Blood was hired late in the 2019 season — a period that saw Holt add major league responsibilities — he took a mandate to “iterate and improve on the process that was initially started,” he said.
Over the next several years, the Orioles further built out the pitching development program to include a new wave of coaching hires, a full-time biomechanist and a pitching lab to derive insights from, as well as a collaborative group of analysts and strength and conditioning coaches to help spur development.
While there are a lot of different layers to that now, minor league pitching coordinator Mitch Plassmeyer believes the way that information is distilled to the field level is what makes it effective.
“It all kind of comes together in a way that I think most importantly is actionable for our coaches, and actionable for our players,” Plassmeyer said. “I think we do a fantastic job across departments and people of boiling it down to make it simple and actionable on a daily basis.”
Just as the staff was built out over time, so too was the talent base. There’s no blanket skill set the Orioles seek, but there are plenty of common traits among their top pitching prospects. The organization favors hoppy four-seam fastballs that work best up in the strike zone and are difficult for hitters to square up. They look for pitchers who have multiple breaking balls on the belief that it demonstrates an ability to manipulate the baseball, meaning they can improve their existing arsenal or add to it. And they aren’t afraid of pitchers with a little funk or deception in their deliveries, as it helps make a pitcher more effective.
By identifying specific traits, as well as having a collaborative draft process that allows for insight from the pitching department on who they might take or otherwise acquire, there’s a baseline of talent and workable skills for the coaches to build off.
The manner in which that happens has also been honed over the last few years. Given the heavy workloads many pitchers carry in college, the first year-plus of professional baseball is typically a developmental one for Orioles pitching prospects, often in a tandem program where two pitchers are scheduled to pitch longer outings each night.
“That’s been a good way for guys to allocate a lot of development reps throughout the week because they’re just going to go out and throw four, maybe five innings in an outing as opposed to pushing them to that six or seven mark at the lower levels,” Plassmeyer said. “They’re a little bit more recovered than they’d be if they threw seven innings or went to 100 pitches consistently. That allows us a lot more development reps at the lower level during the week, in bullpens, in catch play, to be able to work on these different types of pitches that we think scale to be major league quality pitches, which is kind of the end goal.”
In the past few years, Low-A Delmarva has seemingly been where pitchers get acclimated to full-season ball and the attendant workloads before advancing to High-A Aberdeen and really attacking their pitch design and quality goals. It’s been a launching pad for countless pitchers on the Orioles’ farm to make a leap and put themselves on the prospect map, with Justin Armbruester a leading example a season ago and right-handers Trace Bright, Alex Pham and Ryan Long among them this year.
“I think the Orioles have a process that, over the last few years in this system, I’ve seen built upon, improved, and really structured in a way to maximize every player’s preexisting strengths while also adding in their own ability to work on some new pitches,” said Long, a 17th-round pick out of Division III Pomona-Pitzer College.
He described a litany of pitch traits he entered the organization with — backspin on his fastball, the ability to pronate his hand and cause a change-up to fade — that the program has enhanced, as well as new pitches like a cutter that he’s added.
“The Orioles take players’ strengths and use them in a way that fits their model to make you the most complete pitcher you can possibly be,” Long said.
One of the earliest facets of that model, dating back to the pandemic year of 2020, has been developing pitch plans with weapons for every pitcher to use against both left- and right-handed hitters. Those individualized attack plans mean different pitchers might attack hitters in different ways.
“The players really buy into the process, because they feel like they have ownership in it,” Plassmeyer said. “They know it’s individualized for them, and they’ve really kind of bought into that culture of being willing to try new things, being willing and open to understand the information, and being curious and asking really good questions of how it pertains to them.”
The success so far this season, combined with a pitching-heavy draft class, has created the sentiment within the organization that the Orioles’ pitching program is about to start producing significant talent at the major league level. Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott — two well-regarded trade deadline acquisitions last summer — and Armbruester are in the Triple-A rotation, with Pham, Bright and a host of other interesting arms already at Bowie. Add in an entire rotation of pitchers returning from serious injury — including Seth Johnson, Brandon Young, Kyle Brnovich, Zach Peek and Carter Baumler — and there will likely be more starter candidates than rotation spots in the upper minors next season.
All that talent had the organization’s pitching leaders bullish at a mid-season summit to check on the progress of what they’re building.
“I think if you ask any of our coaches and front office, I think people are pretty confident in the process. that we’ve kind of laid out for these guys and the results we’ve seen in the short turnaround time with these guys,” Plassmeyer said. “For me, I think you see a lot of these success stories of guys moving up, moving up quickly, and knocking on the door and what we’ve seen over the last couple of years — we’re really pushing these guys to be the best versions of themselves, and it seems to be working out a little more each and every year.”