For years, the presence of Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall atop the Orioles’ pitching prospect depth chart meant there was a huge gulf between them and the next level of players who eventually could help the major league team.
It didn’t help that, during that time, the Orioles acquired pitchers primarily in the back half of or after the draft, or in trades that subtracted from the major league team. Factor in a pandemic that kept many of these pitchers off a mound for a full season in their formative years, and it has taken time to sort out what the Orioles have in terms of pitchers on the farm.
Now that eyes are turning to the next wave of arms coming through the system, it’s time to present them to the world. Cade Povich has distinguished himself over the last year, but others are emerging as well. Throughout the season, in this series — Arms on the Farm — I’ll use firsthand observation, data analysis and insights from the pitchers and their coaches, along with opinions from professional scouts who cover the Orioles, to provide as much information as possible about these prospects.
We started last month with right-hander Justin Armbruester, who is impressing in the Bowie rotation this season. Next is Chayce McDermott, one of the higher-upside pitchers in the organization but one with plenty of work to reach that potential.
Where did he come from?
The Houston Astros selected McDermott 132nd overall in the 2021 MLB draft out of Ball State, then traded him to the Orioles as part of the three-team deal that sent beloved star Trey Mancini to the Astros last August.
What do the numbers say?
It’s probably more useful here to focus on what McDermott has done since the trade, which encompasses two starts at High-A Aberdeen before he was moved up to Double-A Bowie.
In 84 1/3 innings with an Orioles affiliate, McDermott has a 3.81 ERA with 111 strikeouts (11.85 per nine innings) and 55 walks (5.87 per nine). His 1.23 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) in that span is on the better side for Orioles minor league starters in the last two years, but some of his expected stats have suffered from the high walk rate, particularly in 2023.
His walks per nine in 2023 means that entering Sunday, while his ERA in 11 games (nine starts) was 2.59, his fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which replicates ERA using only strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, was 4.17. His xFIP, which uses a league-average home run rate instead of the pitcher’s actual rate, was 4.19.
The strikeouts and the walks are two sides of the same coin; we’ll hit the walk issues eventually. But the way McDermott misses bats is probably the most attractive thing on any of his stat pages. He had a 14.3% swinging strike rate entering Sunday, with batters whiffing 37% of the time they swing entering Tuesday’s start.
What does he throw?
McDermott is carrying a little more fastball this season than he did last year after the trade, averaging 94.6 mph entering his start Tuesday and consistently in the 93-95 mph range in the two outings I saw this year. (McDermott pitched as a piggyback starter on April 25 and May 19; after the first, he told me he didn’t have his best stuff and after the second — the first five innings of a combined no-hitter — he declared it his worst command of the year.)
The fastball misses plenty of bats thanks to its velocity and vertical movement — like so many pitchers the Orioles have acquired via trade or the draft in the last few years, his is a hoppy four-seamer that jumps on hitters and is tough to square up.
That’s the highlight of his five-pitch mix, with a mid-80s sweepy slider that misses plenty of bats when he commands it. Between that and his fastball, he throws a harder cutter that serves as another weapon against righties and also runs in on the hands of lefties. He’s struggled with that pitch this season but hasn’t given up on it entirely.
McDermott also likes to use his curveball in the 75-79 mph range against lefties. The pitch has plenty of depth and good consistent shape, but like all of his pitches it needs to be more consistently in the strike zone to be more effective and force hitters to chase when it moves out of the zone. Although he was trying to hone a changeup as another weapon to lefties last year, what’s emerged this year is a splitter that has the makings of an effective pitch.
What does the future hold?
McDermott’s fastball makes him a solid bet to make a major league bullpen at some point, and his breaking balls will help if it comes to that. His path to a major league rotation is by being more consistent in his delivery, something McDermott and the Orioles have been addressing.
“He’s working hard to get in sync with his delivery consistently, get through the strike zone consistently with his fastball and really all pitches,” Bowie pitching coach Forrest Herrmann said this season.
McDermott acknowledges that being more consistent with his delivery is “very broad,” but that leads to more strikes and more quality pitches. He said they are monitoring basic things such as pitches per inning as a marker of that progress; in April, it was down over three pitches per inning from 2022, he said, though it’s presently 1.2 pitches per inning lower in 2023 than in his time with the Orioles last year.
May featured a run of high-walk outings — he walked 19 in 18 1/3 innings over his last four starts of the month. It’s unclear how much a pulled muscle in his back influenced that. He walked only one while striking out seven in five one-run innings Tuesday.
In terms of raw stuff and quality of pitches, McDermott might have some of the highest upside of anyone in the Orioles’ system. This developmental goal of commanding his pitches is the key to reaching that potential, and he has a few things going in his favor.
First, McDermott is relatively early in his pro career. He’s 24 at Double-A, and the Orioles don’t need to protect him from the Rule 5 draft until after the 2024 season, meaning there’s another season and a half in the high minors ahead of him to iron out his delivery and find cues that allow him to better repeat it.
Second is his success already. Opponents had a .560 OPS off McDermott at Double-A this season entering Sunday, with a .194 batting average on balls in play. He’s faced 218 batters and allowed just 13 extra-base hits. There’s not a lot of evidence that bad things happen when he does come into the strike zone, so it stands to reason, if he can be around the zone more often, the outcomes would still be positive ones.
Such developments on mechanics that improve command are challenging but not impossible. The extent McDermott and the Orioles’ pitching department can execute them will determine what his major league future holds.