Coming into the 2017, the Orioles had to be interested in what they really had in Donnie Hart. Hart was a 27th round draft pick in the 2013 draft out of Texas State University. When the Orioles selected the diminutive left handed pitcher, it is doubtful that they expected any contribution to their major league team. That is the reality of the 27th round draft pick.
However, Hart came on strong in 2016 at AA Bowie with an eye-opening performance that was enough to earn the call to Baltimore. Once he got in an O’s uniform, Hart ended up pitching 18.1 innings with a tiny 0.49 ERA. There were red flags like a 5.9 K/9 against a 2.9 BB/9, but the overall results deservedly earned him a shot on the 2017 roster.
The test for Hart in 2017 was going to be how manager Buck Showalter would utilize him. Would he be limited as a lefty specialist? Would he be a middle reliever coming in and getting anywhere from one to maybe even six outs? Would he be used in higher-leverage spots and face both right-handed and left-handed hitters? Showalter decided to challenge Hart and use him against hitters of both varieties.
Hart struggled at times during the season, but showed glimpses as well. He even spent some time in AAA Norfolk, but he ended the season with a 3.71 ERA, good for a 118 ERA+ over 43.2 innings pitched at the MLB level. He still posted poor strikeout numbers, striking out only 15.3 percent of the batters he faced, but he did reduce his walk rate from 2016 from 8.5 percent to 6.8 percent in 2017.
Hart is a three pitch pitcher, which helps in getting out hitters from both sides of the plate. He throws a fastball which averaged 87.6 mph, a slider averaging 76.5 mph, and a change up 79.7 mph. He threw his change up more often in 2017, 17.3 percent of the time to be exact, which makes sense since he was facing right-handed hitters more often.
In fact, Hart faced right-handed hitters slightly more often than he did left-handed ones in 2017. He had 101 plate appearances against the righties and 89 plate appearances against the lefties. Interestingly, he fared worse against the left-handed hitters, surrendering an OPS of .773 to lefties and a .738 OPS to righties. That’s probably just a small sample size issue.
Even though his results against left-handed batters was worse, his peripheral statistics look better. He struck out 20.2 percent of lefties he faced compared to only 10.9 percent of right-handed hitters. Although, he did walk 10.1 percent of the lefties he faced and walked only 4 percent of the right handed hitters.
The question moving forward for Hart is will he be able to keep right-handers under check enough that he can be used for more than one or two batters at a time and only when those batters are lefties. That would make a much more valuable asset to an Orioles teams that desperately needs innings from quality pitchers.
Some signs from 2017 point to success against right-handers. Again, the sample size is small, but Hart was able to get 50.6 percent ground balls against right-handed hitters and he induced 9.7 percent infield fly balls. Those are decent indications of him avoiding strong contact.
Hart also kept them from pulling the ball. Right-handers only pulled the ball 29.4 percent of the time against Hart. League-wide, right-handers pull the ball 40.1 percent of the time. Yet, he relented 32.9 percent hard contact to right-handed hitters, which is much higher than his 17.0 percent to left-handers.
Because of his lack of experience and the presence of much more talented relievers, Hart was limited to mostly low leverage innings. He pitched 32.2 low leverage innings, 8.0 medium leverage innings, and 3.0 high leverage innings. Showalter challenged Hart to get right-handed hitters out, but he rarely used him when the game was on the line.
Donnie Hart will likely never be an elite reliever. He does not have the control or the raw stuff to be one in the modern game. That does not mean he is useless. He is tough on lefties and has shown—in an admittedly small sample size—that he can be effective enough on right handed hitters. In this Hart is the perfect fifth, sixth, or seventh reliever on your team.
He should not be the one coming on to get the game-clinching outs, but he will be the one getting outs in the blowout game that are needed which allows the more talented pitchers in the bullpen to rest. This is a crucial role on a baseball team that plays 162 games.
The 27-year-old Hart is under contract until 2023 and is not eligible for arbitration until 2020. He will be controllable and with options for the time being making him an asset as well. Hart will never be the best reliever on your team, but he’s showed that he belongs in the bigs in his career to date.