Heading into the 2016 season, there was no prospect in the Orioles’ system with a stock rising faster than Chris Lee. Despite being a complete unknown just a few months prior, Lee began to appear as high as fifth or sixth on some organization top ten lists, leading O’s fans to ask: who is this guy?
You’d be excused for not having heard of Lee before this year; he was basically dumped on the Orioles last May in exchange for two international bonus slots that totaled about $600,000.
The Astros had given up on Lee. In his fifth professional season, he had been unable to advance beyond low-A because of some serious issues with control. If you’re walking everyone in sight while throwing 100 miles per hour, you might get a pretty long rope; the problem was that Lee was also losing velocity.
His fastball was sitting around 90, he was walking almost as many hitters as he struck out, and Houston decided to cut their losses. Almost immediately, though, Lee began to turn things around. He credited Alan Mills and Rick Peterson with shortening his stride to simplify his delivery, and the difference was night and day.
Not only did Lee’s control improve, but he regained the velocity that made him a prospect in the first place. Suddenly he was touching 97 and pitching to a 3.07 ERA in 14 starts with the Keys. That earned him a promotion to Bowie, where he made seven starts with a nearly identical 3.08 ERA.
Last year’s successful campaign put Lee on the map. He was added to the 40-man roster and joined the big club in Sarasota for spring training before eventually being sent to Bowie to start the year.
Lee pitched well from the get-go for the Baysox. Over his first eight appearances, he had seven quality starts. He went at least six innings in all eight games, and allowed exactly one run in half of them.
His only poor start came on May 18th, when he gave up six runs over six innings against Reading, but he came back with an eight-inning, one-run gem against Hartford on the 23rd. After that start, Lee experienced some shoulder discomfort and was placed on the DL with a lat strain.
It must have been a serious one, because Lee didn’t pitch again this season. That makes it a little hard to evaluate his performance, because there were odd trends in his stats over the 51 innings he threw before landing on the DL.
In terms of results, Lee was great. He was 5-0 with a 2.98 ERA, and excluding that one bad outing against Reading, his ERA was 2.18. Strangely, though, he was succeeding while striking out a ridiculously low amount of hitters.
Excluding rookie ball, Lee was consistently around six strikeouts per nine prior to this year. The main reason that number wasn’t higher was his lack of an out pitch; scouting reports this offseason repeatedly mentioned how his offspeed pitches, particularly the changeup, were a work in progress.
This year, he took “pitching to contact” to another level. Over those 51 innings he struck out only nineteen batters, for a miniscule 3.33 K/9. On one hand, 51 innings isn’t a big sample, so this may not mean much. On the other hand, strikeout rate is one of the quickest stats to stabilize, so it certainly doesn’t mean nothing.
Along with the strikeout rate, his walk rate took a nosedive too. Even after improving his control last season, he was still walking close to four batters per nine. This year, it was closer to two.
Maybe Lee changed his approach to work on some different pitches, or maybe he was forced to change his approach because of the soreness in his shoulder. Maybe it really is just a sample size issue and these stats mean nothing at all.
We’ll find out next year. The lack of K’s is a cause for concern, but the bottom line is that Lee was a promising arm and one of the Orioles’ top prospects as recently as six months ago. Eight starts shouldn’t change that, especially when the guy managed to keep runs off the board anyway.
The anonymous scouts who predicted Lee would join the Orioles this summer turned out to be wrong, but who knows if a healthy Lee would’ve turned up on the big club sometime during the second half?
The Orioles’ starting pitching depth is thin, and the only left-handed option they have right now is Wade Miley. Don’t rule out seeing Chris Lee in Baltimore some time in 2017.