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A closer look at David Hess and his modest early success

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Four starts is a small sample size, but the David Hess experiment has been fun so far. He hasn’t been perfect, but he has been good enough to be worth a closer look.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays
David Hess pitching against the Tampa Bay Rays
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There hasn’t been a multitude of reasons to pay close attention to O’s games this year, but David Hess has been a reason to watch. Since taking the “injured” Chris Tillman’s spot in the rotation, Hess has pitched to a 3.47 ERA over four starts.

A quick recap of his first four starts:

In his debut, broken down by George Battersby, Hess was effective in six innings. He was not entirely dominant, giving up three runs on six hits, but certainly better than the average Orioles start: finishing with a pitching line of 6 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, and 3 K’s.

Next came Boston, who is leading the league in runs scored. As one might have expected, Hess did not fare as well on that night as he did against the lukewarm Rays offense, finishing with a pitching line of 4.2 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, and 3 K’s. His third start, once again against the Rays, was his most dominant to date, with no earned runs allowed over 6.2 innings.

However, I found his most recent start, against the Nationals, to be his most intriguing so far. Max Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in MLB, and Hess stayed competitive with him through six innings, only giving up one earned run on a solo homer to Bryce Harper.

The Nationals have been something of a middle of the pack team in overall run output, sitting at fourteenth in MLB in runs scored. That’s not like facing the Red Sox, but the Nats are a competitive team with a number of quality hitters. Success against that lineup is not meaningless.

Hess has also been going pretty deep into games, going six or more innings in three of his first four starts. On a team that has had an overtaxed bullpen with the many short starts of Chris Tillman and Alex Cobb, this extra length has been helpful.

The league hasn't had a chance to adjust to him yet. It is easier to pitch to an elite group of hitters when they do not know what to expect, but he has shown glimpses of an ability to be effective his third time through the order. That’s when MLB hitters can generally adjust and punish a pitcher whose pitch arsenal isn’t varied enough. It’s worth keeping an eye on this as he keeps getting starts.

Hess has not been inducing many swings and misses, but he also has not been gifting many baserunners. He has only been averaging three strikeouts and one and a half walks per start. While the low number of walks is encouraging, the strikeout numbers are surprisingly low and could become a cause for concern down the road.

In the minors, Hess never had overwhelming strikeout numbers, with a K/9 rate of 7.2 in Double-A Bowie last season. He is going to need to get closer to that to have a better chance of sticking in the back end of the big league rotation for long. The way things are for the Orioles right now, he will get his chances.

It will be interesting to see how Hess fares the next time he faces a highly competitive offense. Boston, the best hitting team that Hess has faced, got the better of him. No one expects a complete game shutout from Hess against teams like that, but if he can’t perform better against the best, it will be tough to hold on to his spot.

If everything stays on turn, Hess will get the Mets next. They’re not so great at the plate this season, but another date against the Red Sox looks like it is in line after that. That will be a start to keep an eye on.

Hess has certainly been better than Tillman. Based purely off of his performance, he deserves to stay in the rotation until he proves otherwise, even if Tillman recovers from the lower back strain he was said to have picked up from dodging a foul ball in the O’s dugout.

One other factor in keeping him in the rotation would be: Is taking lumps at the big league level the best for Hess? The Orioles are clearly not a playoff team in 2018, so there is no reason to rush the development of any top prospects. That’s not the case with Hess. He’ll be 25 next month and was never really a top prospect.

After being drafted in 2014, Hess has pitched at every level of the minor leagues. He started this year out in Triple-A and quickly pitched himself up to the majors with a 2.12 ERA through six starts. The Orioles have not rushed him through the system. With the exception of an inning against Boston, he hasn’t looked overmatched in MLB.

Rather than being the kind of player to keep far away from this lost season, Hess is the kind of guy to plug in when nothing matters to find out if the Orioles have a useful piece for the future. Even if it’s only his fate to be a #4 or #5 starter at best, that is still valuable if it keeps the O’s from having to sign a veteran free agent to fill that spot.