Did you hear the one about the lefty with a 100 mph fastball and a devastating slider who somehow became a forgotten man in the Orioles bullpen?
You’d think a pitcher with that kind of arsenal would be one of the game’s great closers, stomping in from the bullpen to the screaming chants of 40,000 fans while hard rock blares from the stadium speakers.
That’s not quite how things have gone for Tanner Scott, whose maddening inconsistency has — so far— relegated him to middle relief duty in the majors.
The 2018 season was Scott’s first extended stint in the bigs after a two-game cup of coffee in 2017. An up-and-down guy for the first couple of months this season, Scott bounced between the Orioles and Triple-A Norfolk before coming up for good in mid-June. He finished the season with the third-most appearances on the team (53) but posted an unimpressive 5.40 ERA.
Still, the 24-year-old lefty showed glimpses of his sky-high potential.
Scott, the Orioles’ sixth-round draft pick out of Howard College in Texas in 2014, garnered plenty of attention as he rose through the minor league ranks. He was sort of a real-life Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, able to register triple digits on his fastball without always being sure where it was going. His strikeout rates were always high, but it didn’t translate to effective results on the mound.
In 2017, the Orioles implemented a new strategy with Scott at Double-A Bowie, having him work three-inning stints as a starter. It...actually kind of worked, marking a rare triumph for the Birds’ pitching development system. The longer stints allowed Scott to hone his slider against both righties and lefties and work on mixing his pitches more effectively. Scott posted a 2.22 ERA in 24 games, striking out 87 batters in 69 innings.
Before the 2018 season, Scott was ranked the Orioles’ sixth-best prospect by MLB Pipeline, which also gave him the maximum possible grade on his fastball (an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale). Scott was the only O’s prospect to receive an 80 score for any tool, so that was something to get excited about, indeed.
Scott flashed that scorching fastball throughout the 2018 season, averaging a team-best 97.5 mph on his four-seamer, according to Brooks Baseball. But as many a young fireballer has discovered in their first taste of the majors, it’s not about how hard you throw it, it’s about where you throw it. Big league hitters can catch up to even the best velocity if the ball doesn’t have enough movement or is thrown right down the heart of the plate. Such was the case for Scott, who got hit hard on the heater; opponents batted .368 with a .594 slugging against his fastball this year.
No, it wasn’t Scott’s four-seamer that brought him his greatest success. It was his slider. The late-breaking wipeout pitch, which tailed away from lefties and in on righties, was nearly unhittable when Scott got it in the strike zone. Opposing hitters batted just .155 with a .252 SLG against Scott’s slider. They whiffed at the pitch 55 percent of the time they swung at it, compared to 18 percent for the fastball. It’s a big reason why Scott racked up 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings, leading all O’s pitchers.
With that putaway slide piece in his bag of tricks, to go along with the high-90s fastball, it’s tempting to salivate over the idea of Scott as a future closer. To get there, though, he’ll need to tighten up his ability to find the plate as well as his command within the strike zone.
Scott has already made progress toward the former. He walked 4.7 batters per nine innings for the Orioles in 2018, which doesn’t sound impressive (and isn’t), but represents a huge step forward for a hurler who had crippling control problems in the minors. As recently as 2016, Scott averaged a jaw-dropping eight walks per nine innings in 43 minor league games. Even during his otherwise strong 2017 season at Bowie, he carried a 6.0 walks-per-nine rate, and it’s 6.6 in his minor league career. So the fact that Scott reduced that mark in 2018 — against major league competition, no less — is certainly a promising sign, even if he’s got a bit more work to do.
The next task is for Scott to add movement to that straight, hittable fastball. That flat heater was part of the reason he couldn’t find any sustained success this season. He’d look unhittable in one outing and then get torched in the next. Scott had 15 appearances in which he struck out at least three batters, but also had nine outings in which he allowed multiple runs. It wasn’t until the end of September that he went more than three outings in a row without being scored upon. In one particularly gruesome outing July 22, Scott gave up a game-losing three-run homer to the Blue Jays ON HIS BIRTHDAY.
Scott particularly struggled in high-leverage situations, allowing a .389/.500/.611 batting line to opposing hitters, as opposed to .250/.331/.439 in low leverage. He also, as many lefties do, had noticeable platoon splits. Right-handed hitters tagged him for a .295 average and .877 OPS; lefties batted .218 and .639.
Those are all small sample sizes, yes, but they suggest that Scott isn’t quite ready to handle setup or closer duties just yet.
It’s not hard to see a future, though, in which Scott continues to improve and hones his dynamic repertoire. There’s plenty of time for the young southpaw to become a prominent member of the Orioles’ bullpen — maybe even a shutdown ninth-inning guy.