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Orioles' Gains In Pitching Development Haven't Made Way To Big-League Bullpen

August 16, 2019
One thing matters more than anything else for the Orioles this season: the progress of the minor-league system. And in that regard, general manager Mike Elias has seen promising results. 

In recent farm system evaluations, Baseball America ranked the Orioles No. 8 and MLB Pipeline ranked them No. 13. That's a strong jump from just a year ago, when many ranked the O's collection of minor-league talent in the bottom third of the league. Thanks to the selection of No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman and the continued development of pitchers DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, the O's have some high-ceiling prospects to get excited about.

Player development and scouting, after all, were chief reasons why Elias was hired in the first place. His experience in helping to construct the Houston Astros' powerhouse provided fans something to dream on, and so far there has been nothing to suggest the Orioles aren't in capable hands.

While the continued progress of Orioles minor leaguers trumps all during this rebuild, there was and still is hope that, through a combination of analytics, improved communication and better coaching, the Orioles could also get more out of some of their talent in or near the major leagues. Regardless of how much credit you want to assign various parties, that has played out well for the likes of John Means, Trey Mancini, Pedro Severino, Hanser Alberto, Anthony Santander and a few others. 

But, interestingly enough, one area that hasn't seen much improvement is the bullpen, which arguably should have been the strongest part of a weak team heading into the season. Not only did Mychal Givens, one of the team's only realistic trade chips, have an underwhelming first half, but the Orioles ended up hanging on to him at the deadline (along with everyone else not named Dan Straily) after opposing teams failed to meet Elias' asking price.

Givens has mostly righted himself in the second half, as he's moved away from primarily being used as a closer. But many of the Orioles' younger relief arms have been stuck on the Norfolk shuttle.

Tanner Scott, 24, who threw 53.1 innings last season for the Orioles and posted a 5.40 ERA, has mostly been relegated to Norfolk, where he's pitched well. In 17 major-league innings this season, his ERA is nearly the same as last year, but his peripheral stats have gone in the opposite direction. His strikeout rate is down, his walk rate is up and he's allowed more hard contact (exit velocity and barrels).

Pitching as an opener and in relief, Jimmy Yacabonis, 27, also took steps backward before being designated for assignment Aug. 14. Like Scott, he put up an ERA in the mid-5.00s last season in 40 innings -- but now his ERA is near 7.00. During spring training, Yacabonis told reporters about the benefits of the Orioles incorporating high-speed cameras during bullpen sessions, a practice that many other teams have gradually adopted. That has surely been a factor in Yacabonis producing more spin and movement on some of his pitches -- most notably, his slider and changeup have greater drop -- but it hasn't led to success.

There's David Hess, 25, who, after a somewhat intriguing 2018 (4.88 ERA in 103.1 innings) has an ERA above 7.00, is allowing more than three home runs per nine innings and is trying to salvage his career as a reliever. There's Evan Phillips, 24, who has been optioned to Norfolk several times and has an ERA over 8.00 in limited innings. There's Cody Carroll, 26, who hasn't thrown a single pitch all year due to a lingering back injury. There's also Josh Rogers, 24, who in July underwent his second Tommy John surgery

Of the younger relief options, one success story may end up being Miguel Castro, 24. After a brutal start to the season, Castro has gotten his ERA below 5.00 as he's increased his strikeouts and cut down slightly on his walks. The expected wOBA against Castro has dropped more than 60 points from 2018-2019. Much of the improvement can be attributed to throwing more changeups each month, and he's now using that pitch even more than his slider.

Castro's recent improvement is encouraging, but what does the rest of this mean? Maybe not a whole lot, at least for now. Many of these relief arms struggled before this season, and it's hard to say much of anything could have made them better. Someone like Castro isn't even in the same boat as Scott, for example; somehow, Castro is already pitching in his fifth major-league season. These other guys are just trying to do enough to stick around on the Orioles' roster for a few months.

If the Orioles do eventually start to earn a reputation as pitching revitalization experts -- say, like the Astros -- it's going to take some time. Means' 2019 season can't be overlooked, but the random positive progress of a few pitchers here and there will pale in comparison to the development of the prospects like Hall, Rodriguez, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann, Keegan Akin and several other young arms.

It's important to remember the O's are still getting things underway. There are more scouting and coaching hires to make. Assistant GM Sig Mejdal is in the process of building out an analytics department. But it's still a little surprising that one of these young relief arms hasn't broken out ... yet. Maybe prospects Hunter Harvey or Dillon Tate will break that mold soon.

Note: All statistics are entering play Aug. 13.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 256: August 2019