No one will say just how fast the pitching machines the Orioles use can go, only that they replicate what can be thrown in a game, sometimes exaggeratedly so.

Whatever the answer is, that’s what Jackson Holliday has been asking for in his drill work at Triple-A Norfolk as he addresses some of the deficiencies his major league stint exposed.

“He’s incredibly impressive with some of the challenges that you cook up in practice,” Orioles director of player development Anthony Villa told me last week. “He finds a way to be that continued problem-solver. … The way that he continues to attack velocity is very impressive. We just dial it up, and he continues to make adjustments.”

Sustained, consistent velocity was one of a handful of challenges Holliday had in his fortnight with the Orioles, and in over a month since he was optioned, he has had opportunities to work to close all those gaps. His adjustments were noticeable early on and have been toned down some since, in his own telling.

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As the Orioles evaluate his progress for a potential return to the majors, they’ll look at many factors. Reports from their player development staff will be one of them. Opportunity at the major league level will be a big one, too. But they’ll also dig into the numbers, many of which are available to us via Statcast now. Here’s what they might find in a few key areas.

Facing hard four-seamers

Entering Thursday’s game, Holliday had seen 81 four-seam fastballs at 95 mph or faster over 23 plate appearances, meaning he’s faced that kind of velocity in fewer than one plate appearance per game since he was sent down April 26. Of those pitches, 21 were in the strike zone.

Overall, he’s put seven in play, with a single and a double, and whiffed five times in 20 swings. On just those in the zone, he swung at 13 and whiffed on three. That came after Holliday swung at seven four-seamers over 95 mph in the big leagues and whiffed on six of them.

Part of the Orioles’ directive for Holliday was to shorten some of his load and movement patterns to allow him to be on time for the consistent high velocity he’ll see in the majors. Statistically, the real and expected outcomes don’t demonstrate much of an improvement in that area. Villa said they put just as much stock into pregame work as the results when swing changes like this are happening.

“It’s showing up more in practice, early on,” Villa said. “What you’re working on is going to take a little bit more time to translate to the games, so what he’s doing in the cage, what he’s doing in BP, you start to see it then bleed over into the games in different situations — just like, again, continuing to understand how to attack that velocity, especially pitchers that might be coming into the game later in the game. But it’s been nice to see him continue to be himself and stick to his strengths as well. He’s controlled the strike zone extremely well, and he’s kept a great attitude as he’s continued to work.”

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Holliday had two hits in 34 at-bats during his brief stay in Baltimore. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Controlling the edges

Holliday has always judged the strike zone well, and that hasn’t changed this time around in Norfolk. He’s swung at 18.2% of pitches outside the zone, though chases weren’t totally the issue as he was getting his feet under him in the majors. It was the edges of the strike zone where Holliday found himself taking strikes and getting behind in counts, forcing him into protect mode and putting him at the mercy of big league pitchers.

Before his major league call-up, Holliday fared decently well in this zone, known as the “shadow,” which presents as roughly from 3.3 inches outside to 3.3 inches inside the edge of the strike zone. He swung at 45.2% of these pitches before his call-up in Norfolk, then 41.9% of them in the majors.

Now, he’s swinging at 45.1% of them again, albeit without as much statistical success as his last go-around in Norfolk. In the minors, at least, he swings at the pitches in this area that are inside the strike zone more often than the ones outside it, so he continues to display the strike zone control the Orioles want from their hitters.

To this point, he isn’t doing more to protect in those areas where major league pitchers picked on him over those two weeks with the Orioles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the Orioles aren’t going to abandon their swing-decision emphasis to counteract two challenging weeks in the big leagues with one of their prized prospects.

The point of not swinging at those pitches, though, is to bring pitchers into the heart of the plate, where hitters do the most damage.

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Heart of the plate

Somewhat surprisingly, Holliday isn’t doing the level of damage in the heart of the plate as we’d expect. He’s quite good at not swinging at balls, but on those pitches over the white part of the plate that the Orioles expect their hitters to drive, Holliday hasn’t done as well as he did in his earlier time in Triple-A.

Before his call-up (over the end of 2023 and into 2024), Holliday hit .354 with a .585 slugging percentage on pitches in the heart of the plate for the Tides, with in-line expected stats. He had a 12.4% whiff rate and an average exit velocity of 95.2 mph on pitches in that zone.

Since returning to the Tides, he’s batting .297 (against a .245 expected batting average) with a .453 slugging percentage (against a .419 expected slugging percentage) on pitches in the heart of the plate, with a 20.3% whiff rate and a 92.8 mph average exit velocity.

He’s swinging a bit more often at these pitches since his demotion — 73.4% of the time as opposed to 69.3% in Triple-A before he made his major league debut. The major league average on pitches in those zones this year is 73%, and Holliday swung at 77% of them in the majors.

We’re talking small samples where a lot has changed, though. Holliday told The Banner late last month that he had spent the most recent couple of weeks with a swing and setup more closely resembling his old one, and in that period since, the results were much better.

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Overall, he was batting .252 with an .844 OPS since returning to Norfolk entering Thursday’s game. Those are fine results for someone Holliday’s age at that level. A lot more will go into getting him called up, though, and that’s the focus as he works his way back to the majors.

Villa said: “I think it’s continuing the forward path of progress. We understand that, during these developmental windows, there might be moments where the stats aren’t off the page, and that’s fine. We’re not always concerned with players having to win that night in order to win the long game a little bit more and understand that this is what we collectively all put our heads together on and believe it’s going to be in the future.”