Tyler Wells had good reason to stop chasing strikeouts last season.
He was transitioning back into a starting rotation for the first time since 2018 when he was in the Twins minor league system. He then missed two years due to injury and spent 2021 as a Rule 5 pick in the Orioles bullpen. To best serve the club’s needs on an innings limit, he decided to attack the strike zone and pitch to contact, forsaking the attractive and ultimately lucrative strikeouts that so many pitchers chase in the modern game to provide as many outs every fifth game as he could.
His hope at the time was that this year he’d get back to striking hitters out at least near the levels he did as a reliever. The 28-year-old right-hander’s ability to do so has been one of the more intriguing aspects of the Orioles’ season — with the credit in his mind going more to how he learned to use his pitches last year than any change in approach.
“It’s kind of funny, because being able to say that I’m pitching differently than I was is not an understatement — I think it’s a different statement, because I don’t feel like I’m pitching any different,” Wells said. “I just feel like I’m using my stuff differently. I think that was something that that year of being a starter allowed me to kind of figure out. As I’ve continued to develop my mentality and kind of my pitch mix, I think there are a few things that just allowed me to kind of unintentionally get to where I’m at with them now. I’m not trying to strike guys out — it’s just happening.”
Whatever the reason, it’s happening far more frequently this year than last. Wells struck out a career-high nine batters in 5 2/3 innings in the Orioles’ win over the Giants Sunday, bringing his strikeouts per nine innings up to 9.2 , up from 6.6 a season ago. Wells is still keeping opponents off the bases — his 0.82 walks and hits per inning pitched entering Sunday is the lowest among qualified major league starters — and his 3.38 ERA leads Orioles starters.
Wells’ circumstances are unique. Sometimes, when a pitcher’s strikeout rate spikes, it’s because of a new pitch or some kind of wholesale change that meaningfully alters his arsenal. He attributes his own strikeouts more to how he’s using what he already had.
“I’m just trying to make well-located pitches, and I think that maybe that way I’m mixing it up differently, maybe the way that I’m throwing more strikes with all my pitches — especially when they’re in hitter’s counts — I think is important,” Wells said. “I’ve been able to keep them off balance. I feel like that’s really kind of the big difference as a starter in the big leagues versus what I did in the past, just being able to throw any pitch in any count, and throw it for strikes.”
That’s not to say there aren’t changes. He feels his slider and cutter blended together last year. Now his slider is back to the 2021 version that was a weapon out of the bullpen, and the other pitch is more of a true cutter with less drop to accentuate its horizontal movement.
He cited this change only after some pressing as to what’s different, though he referred to it as “the most nonchalant answer you can have.”
“It truly doesn’t feel like I’m doing a ton differently, other than really trying to locate my pitches well and be able to throw any kind of pitch in any count,” Wells said.
That part has helped Wells get into position to strike hitters out by being in favorable counts. An even 75% of his pitches have come even or ahead in the count and, once he gets to two strikes, Wells has significantly improved how he has struck hitters out with his impressive four-seam fastball.
The pitch is an elite weapon up in the strike zone because the 6-foot-8 right-hander throws it from a high release point and gets carry on the pitch that gives it rising action. He entered Sunday throwing it slightly more often with two strikes — 37.3% of the time this year versus 34.3% last year — but already had more strikeouts on the pitch (28) in 2023 than he did in 2022, when he struck out 24 on his fastball.
A significant jump in whiff rate — 35.7% from 19.2% a season ago — has accounted for most of his two-strike success. Despite his positive feelings about his cutter, it’s gone from the pitch he used second most with two strikes in 2022 (32.2%) to fourth most (14.6%), behind his changeup and slider.
Wells’ slider entered Sunday as his secondary weapon with two strikes against righties, who had struck out 10 times on the pitch with a 33.3% whiff rate. Against lefties, he uses his changeup second most behind his fastball, with 11 strikeouts and a 25.7% whiff rate. At that left-right level, though, there’s no bigger difference in Wells than his two-strike fastball performance.
Lefties have a 46.2% whiff rate against the pitch with two strikes, up from 25.5% a season ago.
On Sunday, the most prolific strikeout performance of his career, he used his entire arsenal. Four of his six strikeouts against lefties came on his changeup, with two swinging and two looking, with one elevated four-seamer and a cutter mixed in as well. Against righties, one came on a swing and miss at an elevated heater and the other two came from batters looking on a changeup and cutter, respectively.
Wells credits the Orioles’ coaching staff — including pitching strategy coach Ryan Klimek — for helping him devise a plan to attack each hitter he faces. The shift in how he’s using his fastball seems to be part of that.
Another year of major league experience helps, too.
“I think, along with that plan, it’s knowing how to execute it,” Wells said.