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Taking a closer look at the Orioles’ Norfolk shuttle

Baltimore has become known for carrying out fast and frequent promotions and demotions.

St Louis Cardinals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Year in and year out, the Orioles seem to be one of the most active players in the MLB transaction logs. In what has become affectionately known as the ‘Norfolk shuttle’, a player gets called up from the Minors, stays with Baltimore for a few days or a few weeks, and then gets sent back down in favor of someone new.

There are several reasons as to why this happens. When it comes to pitchers, one major reason is to keep the bullpen fresh. The team may have a long game where multiple relievers are used, and the next day they decide they need a fresh arm to help protect other pitchers from overuse.

The same frequently happens when the team has a doubleheader and they need pitching reinforcements to protect the roster again. In cases like this, a player may perform well as a spot call-up, then still get sent back down to the Minors the very next day simply because the team needs a fresh body in their place.

Another reason for the Norfolk shuttle is injury. MLB rules state the following exception to player call-ups in such cases:

“Upon being optioned to the Minor Leagues, a player must remain there for a minimum of 10 days before he is eligible to be recalled to the Major League roster. The exception to that 10-day minimum is if the player is recalled as the corresponding move made when his club places an injured player on the Major League disabled list. In this exception, there is no minimum number of days in which the optioned player must remain in the Minors.”

Yet another reason for calling players up and down is bench composition. A five man bench is a luxury the Orioles can rarely afford since they are using their bullpen so frequently. But if the O’s see a scenario where it’s beneficial to have an extra position player around for a few days, they take advantage of that, knowing full well they can just recall a reliever in that position player’s place later on.

The rules get a bit complicated though when it comes to roster procedure with young players. According to MLB.com, “any player with fewer than five years of Major League service time and an option year remaining can be optioned to the Minor Leagues.”

So how can a player be called up and sent down multiple times in the same season? MLB rules also state that “an option applies to an entire season, meaning that a player can be sent to the Minors and recalled to the Majors any number of times over the course of a season while only losing one option.” Hence the term, ‘Norfolk shuttle’.

The Orioles have long utilized these particular rules and it has been in full effect this season too. Next, we’ll take a look a some players who have been frequent members of the Norfolk shuttle: a pair of relievers and one position player.

First up is outfielder Joey Rickard. He has been optioned and recalled six different times so far this year. He did not make the team out of Spring Training, getting optioned to Triple-A for the first time on March 14. He was then recalled on April 28 and stuck around for only two days, getting sent back down on April 30. In those two games he played in, he went a combined 1-for-5 with three walks and two runs.

He was recalled again on May 13, sticking with the team for a bit over a month this time until he was sent back down on June 21. In 40 at-bats in May, he hit .275 with two home runs and 3 runs batted in. In 34 June at-bats, he hit just .118 with three home runs and three RBI.

Rickard is currently with the big league club, having been officially recalled on July 4 to replace Colby Rasmus, who went on the restricted list a day earlier. As far as his stats this year, Rickard is slashing .203/.267/.405 with the Orioles, versus .303/.415/.445 with the Triple-A Tides.

Next up on the Norfolk shuttle is reliever Donnie Hart. He currently resides with the Tides, having been optioned most recently on June 28. Left-handed relief specialist is another luxury the Orioles only keep around certain times.

Hart has been recalled and optioned 10 times this year, sometimes sticking with the O’s for only a few days before being sent back down to the minors. In 7.1 innings with the the big league club, Hart has a 3.68 ERA and 1.91 WHIP. Lefties are hitting .286 against him. With the Tides, he has a 2.17 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and lefties are batting .196 against him.

The final player in this sample is 23-year-old left-hander Tanner Scott, who has been called up and optioned eight different times, including when he was first optioned to the Minors from Spring Training. His most recent stint with the club started on June 15.

A point of emphasis for Scott throughout his career has been control. With Norfolk this year he had a 0.75 ERA but was averaging 6.8 walks per nine innings. He has only fared slightly better with the O’s in that regard, averaging 4.2 walks per nine innings with Baltimore. He also has a 6.33 ERA with the big league club.

As you can see, most of these players have performed markedly better in Triple-A than they have in Baltimore. But they will keep getting their shots in the Majors, although intermittently at times, seeing as the Orioles are firm believers in the player option and like to use that stipulation to its full extent.