It’s the rallying cry of baseball dads, little league coaches, and — as it turns out — minor league pitching instructors: Just throw the ball over the plate and good things will happen.

Last year at Triple-A Norfolk, the Orioles’ top two pitching prospects — Chayce McDermott and Cade Povich — had that reinforced by the automated balls and strikes called by the level’s robot umpires.

If either reaches his potential, the hard truths told by the computerized strike zone they pitched to in the second half will be part of the reason why.

“My second outing, I walked like six people but everything was right around the zone,” McDermott recalled.

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Norfolk pitching coach Justin Ramsey broke it down as simply as possible: It’s automatic — just throw it in the zone.

“After that, it was kind of like, ‘If I can just throw it in the zone, guys aren’t going to hit it,’” McDermott said. “I might as well stay there and not try to nibble.”

Added Povich: “The only way you can force a batter to swing is by throwing it in the zone, especially at these higher levels. They’re not going to chase bad stuff.”

What seems like a basic nugget of knowledge is a particularly meaningful one for this pair of pitchers, who the Orioles brought in through trades on consecutive days in the 2022 season. Povich, 23, headlined the four-player trade that sent All-Star closer Jorge Lopez to the Twins, while McDermott was part of a three-team trade that sent Trey Mancini to Houston.

Each possessed impressive raw stuff and bat-missing ability in their previous stops. But both came to the Orioles with questions about whether they’d be able to effectively and consistently execute in the strike zone as they climbed the minors.

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The pair ended 2022 at Double-A Bowie and returned there to start 2023 with divergent results. McDermott had a 3.56 ERA with 11.6 strikeouts per nine, though he walked 5.8 batters per nine. Povich’s strikeout rate was elite — he struck out 13.1 per nine — but had a 4.87 ERA with 4.1 walks per nine.

McDermott, 25, went to Norfolk first, and his first start came on a Saturday, when a human umpire called balls and strikes but hitters and pitchers could challenge errant calls. The second was in Gwinnett, where he walked six and quickly understood his new reality.

“The automatic ball-strike system really forced him into the zone, and he learned pretty quickly that hitters weren’t going to chase because they didn’t have to,” Ramsey said. “Once he started to understand that, he started to trust his stuff in the zone and realize he had plenty of stuff to miss bats, and I think it just kind of built off itself.”

It helps that McDermott has little to fear throwing in the zone. His five-pitch mix is headlined by a deceptive and hoppy four-seam fastball, plus a slider, cutter, splitter, and curveball. His opposing batting average against of .167 was best in the high-minors. Both Ramsey and Double-A pitching coach Forrest Herrmann had told McDermott at points in the season how well his stuff played in the zone, but the results in Triple-A reinforced that for him. After that Gwinnett start, he walked 3.6 batters per nine, and finished at Triple-A better than the level below.

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Cade Povich (76) poses for a portrait during the Baltimore Orioles’ team picture day during spring training at Ed Smith Stadium on Feb. 21, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Povich’s progress at the level was slower. The transition from the minor league baseballs to the MLB ball used in Triple-A changed how his pitches moved, and as a pitcher who loves to live on the edges of the strike zone, the inconsistent shapes of his offerings and automated strike zone required some adjustments. He, too, has a five-pitch mix that he likes to deploy, but got away from how he likes to pitch.

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“I think last year, with where my strikeouts were, it was something that they kept climbing, so I kept chasing them — which probably led to me falling behind in counts more and getting the walks up,” Povich said. “It’s something that I started chasing, which has never really been my mindset, because I’ve always tried to see how deep I can go in a game. I hate walking people, so that also wasn’t something characteristic of myself.”

Povich had a 7.61 ERA with a 1.56 WHIP and 18 walks in 23 2/3 innings over his first six Triple-A starts, and Ramsey said at times Povich’s natural inclination to work on things and seek a solution to his problems sometimes obscured the fact that he just needed more reps the way he was doing it.

Still, September was better. Povich had a 2.91 ERA with a 1.11 WHIP and 12 strikeouts per nine in four regular season starts, then pitched four shutout innings in the playoffs for the Tides. The benefits of the learning environment at Triple-A took longer to take hold, but came through eventually, Ramsey said.

“I think he saw some of that with the results in the playoffs, and even leading up to it — because his last few outings were very good,” Ramsey said. “Just time and reps — the more he does it, the more he’s going to understand it, the more he’s going to trust it, and the more he’s going to see himself where he needs to be.”

Both McDermott and Povich will likely return to Norfolk for further development, though a major league debut this summer is in reach provided they continue on the track they’re on. For the Orioles, that track is one that works best through the strike zone.

“When you have five real weapons that you can go to and you trust that you can get them all through the zone, they can’t sit on anything,” Ramsey said. “And if you’re showing any kind of command, they’re just up there guessing and hoping.”

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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