In what will be a pivotal offseason in terms of how the Orioles put together their major league pitching staff, the complexion of the coaching staff will change as well.
With Wednesday’s news that pitching coach Chris Holt will relinquish his day-to-day major league responsibilities to focus on his director of pitching duties and assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes won’t be returning, the exponential growth the Orioles have experienced on the pitching side of their organization has been given further runway, albeit with different faces overseeing the aspect that matters: major league success.
There’s no denying the Orioles have found that over the last three years with Holt as major league pitching coach, with their shortcomings on the mound front and center in the 110-loss season in 2021 and their turnaround helping them to a winning record in 2022 and a 101-win, division-championship season in 2023.
An upgrade in talent, particularly in the bullpen, certainly helped that along. After struggling elsewhere or in other roles, Cionel Pérez, Yennier Canó and Jorge López took significant leaps forward in the last two years, while Félix Bautista’s emergence as the game’s most dominant relief pitcher boosted the group as well. In the rotation, Dean Kremer had his most consistent major league season yet, Tyler Wells transitioned into an impressive starter after debuting in the bullpen in 2021, and Kyle Bradish developed into one of the American League’s best starters in 2023.
While Holt was primarily focused on the major league side, the pitching program in the minors continued the transformation that began when Holt was hired away from the Houston Astros ahead of the 2019 season. One of his first hires with the organization, Justin Ramsey, continues to be an invaluable resource at Triple-A Norfolk, where he serves as the pitching coach and upper-minors pitching coordinator.
A group of more recent hires who had their start together at Premier Pitching Performance in St. Louis — minor league pitching coordinator Mitch Plassmeyer, Double-A Bowie pitching coach Forrest Herrmann and High-A Aberdeen pitching coach Austin Meine — has helped accelerate the pitching development process. The program is based on individualized long-term goals, and all work is geared toward maximizing every pitcher’s weapons and teaching them to locate them in spots that can yield swings and misses. At the lower levels, another early hire in Adam Bleday set the course for the complex-level pitchers for years before moving to Low-A Delmarva in 2023.
The program has been responsible for improvement at every level of the minors. Top prospects and late-round picks alike have improved, through an organizational focus on strikeouts per nine innings and a granular command-based grading system that rewards pitchers for locating specific pitches to specific spots where they are most effective — a four-seam fastball at the top of the strike zone or a slider that dives below the outer half of the zone.
While Holt was at the major league level on a daily basis, he said in an interview during the season that he sought to ensure Plassmeyer, pitching player development analyst Adam Schuck and biomechanist Joey Mylott were always “doing what they’re good at.”
“I’m not meddling, but just setting them on course to really take off and put their hands on guys and use their strengths has been the goal from the outset,” Holt said.
He also noted how aligned the practices and philosophies were from the top down.
“There’s been a huge improvement in how things are systematic with the development process, systematic with the delivery, systematic with pitch development, systematic with workload management — so the entire system has improved as far as being consistent day in and day out, being very consistent as far as how we go about working with the players from the bottom up and the top down,” Holt said. “We’ve worked to implement the same systematic qualities to how we operate on a day-to-day basis in the big leagues as well.”
Holt removing major league responsibilities from his plate will allow further organizational alignment and likely allow him to split his time between Baltimore and the club’s affiliates. It also creates a gap in the major league coaching staff that will say plenty about the Orioles’ direction, based on how they fill it, though from the outside it seems all that’s really happening is akin to the principal becoming the headmaster of a school and a new principal coming in beneath him to handle the day to day.
Ramsey is an obvious choice for elevation to the major league staff, given his track record of helping players from Grayson Rodriguez to Bautista to Canó improve and familiarity with the organization’s practices. Similarly, the Orioles have shown they don’t need to see much from a coach in the minors to bring him to the major league staff. Co-hitting coach Ryan Fuller was in the organization on the minor league side for only two seasons before being promoted to that job.
The major league coaching staff isn’t bereft on the pitching side, though. Ryan Klimek, the pitching strategy coach, has been an integral part of the team’s daily processes for the last few seasons in terms of formulating attack plans and helping break down scouting reports of opponents. Pitchers constantly shout him out after their good starts and clearly appreciate the work he does. He could be due for an elevation as well.
There’s also the potential for an outside addition, which could represent a shift of sorts from how they’ve operated. It’s not the only facet of their offseason that could fall into that category.
For instance, if they use their considerable prospect depth or unaccounted for revenue-sharing money to add experienced, proven starting pitching to the top of their rotation, that could be viewed as a tacit acknowledgement that their plan to develop young pitchers into those types of starters hasn’t materialized as quickly as they wanted.
Similarly, if they add a more traditional pitching coach or someone who is not of the same school of thought as the rest of the pitching apparatus, it could be a signal that they believe adjustments are required to build a staff that fares better than theirs did in the three-game playoff sample we saw.
It’s certainly possible that they change course on the roster-building front. It’s less likely they make a drastic change in direction, considering Holt’s elevation likely will empower him to oversee and guide the current strategy with less major league responsibility.
Total alignment has been one of, if not the, main reasons the Orioles’ turnaround happened as successfully as it has. It would be strange to sacrifice that on the pitching side at a time when the program has grown as strong as it has.