This could be the most important period of David Hess’s baseball career. After dominating Triple-A in six starts this season, he earned a promotion to Baltimore this May to take over Chris Tillman’s spot in the Orioles starting rotation. Hess had early success, delivering four “quality starts” in his first five trips to the mound. Since then, he has struggled, allowing 15 runs over his last 12 innings, including a tough outing against the Braves on Sunday. How he responds to these recent struggles will go a long way towards determining what his role on this Orioles team will be in the future.
From May 25 through June 6, Hess was on a stretch where he threw 18.2 innings, gave up two runs, allowed 13 hits, walked six and struck out nine. Those numbers won’t jump off the page at you, but for a 24-year-old rookie that had little fanfare surrounding his call-up, it was a pleasant surprise. Suddenly, the O’s 2019 rotation was taking shape, and not all hope seemed lost. Now, Hess is in the midst of this three-start period that was mentioned earlier, and more questions have arose.
More than anything else, there must be concerns surrounding the rate at which opposing hitters are making contact against Hess. He is striking out just 5.23 hitters per nine innings, which is, ya know, not great. According to FanGraphs, hitters are making contact on 84 percent of all swings (70.8 percent out of the strike zone, 90.1 percent in the strike zone), and they have a .272 batting average against.
When hitters are making contact, they are putting the ball in the air a ton against Hess. His 47.5 percent fly ball rate would be in the top five of MLB if he had thrown enough innings to qualify for league leaderboards. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Justin Verlander (56.5 percent) and Max Scherzer (47.3 percent) both have huge fly ball rates, and their careers have panned out pretty well.
Of course, there are many varieties of fly balls. We can turn to Statcast to gain a little clarity on that front. The average launch angle against Hess is 20.1 degrees, well above the 10.8 degree league average. By itself that doesn’t matter much, but when you add in an average exit velocity of 88.2 mph (league average: 87.3) it becomes a touch more concerning. On top of that, 10.5 percent of batted balls against Hess have been “barreled”. In short, Hess allows hard contact in the air far too often, and it will continue to get him into trouble.
Hess’s MLB Pipeline profile currently says “Questions remain about whether Hess, with his high-effort delivery and lack of an out pitch, can remain a starter. It’s long been thought that his stuff would play up in short bursts out of the bullpen.”
Since Hess has not come out of the bullpen yet this season, it’s impossible to know whether that statement is true or not. What we can say is that not even the first time through a batting order has been easy for the rookie.
When hitters first see Hess in a game, they are hitting .258/.319/.530, which has worked out to a 5.29 ERA. The second time through the order, they get on base more but hit for less power (.258/.361/.435, 2.81 ERA). The third time is a disaster (.314/.351/.559, 10.80 ERA), but that’s not abnormal.
Going back to FanGraphs again, Hess’s fastball grades out as his least effective pitch (-7.8 runs above average), and he throws it a good amount (61 percent of the time). It would be interesting to pull Hess back to just an inning or two at a time. It could allow him to throw a little harder — he has the ability to get his fastball into the mid-90s — and further improve his plus-slider (3.8 runs above average).
There is another clear split developing in Hess’s game that would benefit him in a relief role. So far, the right-handed pitcher has performed much better against right-handed batters. They are hitting .237/.318/.467 against him while lefties are teeing off to the tune of a .299/.365/.529 line.
While Hess’ future may very well be in the Baltimore bullpen, it’s too early to pull that emergency valve. He’s hit a rough patch in his young career; that’s for sure. But he has also shown enough promise that he deserves to continue on in the starting rotation for now and try to work through some things. Should he continue to struggle, the better move may be to send him back to Norfolk to continue starting while giving someone like Yefry Ramirez or even Jimmy Yacabonis an extended look in the bigs. If the issues continue with the Tides, perhaps a future in the bullpen would be best.
The Orioles train wreck of a season is not without its benefits. This team is not going to compete for a playoff spot. As such, they do not need to handle every game as if it is make-or-break. Instead, they can slow play it. Some of the organization’s more promising young talent can be allowed to develop and learn some hard lessons without the pressure of being immediately demoted for the slightest of miscues.
Hess is bad right now, but it doesn’t mean he won’t get better. At the moment, he looks more likely to become a Mike Wright Jr. than a future Dylan Bundy. The truth is that his career will likely (hopefully!) fall somewhere in between, and that’s OK. Organizational pitching depth is something that the Orioles have lacked for several years. If Hess can correct some of the things that currently plague him and become a useful spot starter, that’s worth something.
What the Orioles should not do is allow Tillman to return from whatever it is that ails him and rip starts away from Hess. It would be undeserved and only further prove to players on the fringes of the roster that it doesn’t always matter how well you play. This club has favorite players, and they will try to shoehorn them back into the Baltimore picture no matter what.