When Kevin Gausman walked off the mound after his eight scoreless frames earlier this week, his ERA since the trading deadline lowered to an even 2.00. In 21 starts for the Orioles this season, Gausman accumulated 1.3 WAR. It has taken him just four starts with Atlanta to reach 0.6 WAR. His FIP of 3.16 indicates that he’s benefiting from an improved defense and his K/9 is down since moving to the National League. But his WHIP is an amazing 0.963, and his home run rate and walks are down.
It has taken the Braves less than a month to unleash the potential that we saw caged up in the former fourth overall pick. And you’d struggle to find an Orioles fan who is surprised.
The poster child of a struggling Orioles pitching prospect finding success elsewhere is obviously Jake Arrieta. He was traded to the Cubs in the summer of 2013 (for Scott Feldman, eww) when his ERA was 7.23. It was 3.66 in the nine starts he made for Chicago to end 2013. As if O’s fans need reminded, he won the 2015 NL Cy Young Award as a result of his 22-6 record and 1.77 ERA.
So why couldn’t Arrieta and Gausman achieve their full potential in Baltimore? Both were first round talents (Arrieta fell to the fifth round due to signability concerns as a Scott Boras client). Much has been written about Arrieta’s transformation once he got out of Baltimore. His relationship with former pitching coach Rick Adair was apparently toxic, as Adair did not let his pitchers pitch in the way that got them to the big leagues. Some have said that a simple change of scenery was the catalyst for the improvement. Maybe it’s because the Orioles didn’t let him grow his fantastic beard.
Gausman hasn’t been gone long enough to talk about what went wrong in Baltimore. But he’s made some changes. After one of Gausman’s starts with the Braves, he talked about the importance of getting ahead in the count. “That’s one of the biggest things they said when I got here, ‘We’re big believers in getting ahead.’ They showed me the numbers when you don’t. It kind of makes you want to throw up. I kind of took that into [account] tonight and just tried to pound the zone.” If we take Gausman at face value here, that speaks volumes about how the Orioles develop pitchers and teach the craft. Yes, it’s a good idea to throw strikes.
There have been some other changes. The Athletic’s Matt Kremnitzer pointed out Gausman’s placement on the rubber since being traded.
Where Kevin Gausman was positioned on the mound for the Orioles in July vs. where he is now for the Braves. Pretty big difference pic.twitter.com/e3DZhZDvsJ— Matt Kremnitzer (@mattkremnitzer) August 22, 2018
Kremnitzer also notes that there has been a major change in Gausman’s horizontal release point since the trade.
Speaking of Kevin Gausman's production so far with the Braves and placement on the mound... https://t.co/DVmOhvBXcj pic.twitter.com/iOWHKeAEPX— Matt Kremnitzer (@mattkremnitzer) August 22, 2018
It’s only been four games. Maybe these tweaks won’t achieve lasting success. Maybe he won’t always find the strike zone as easily as he has in the past four games. But the Orioles do not deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Putting the examples of Arrieta and Gausman aside, who was the last good pitcher that the Orioles drafted and developed? The best answer I can come up with is Mike Mussina, who has been retired for a decade. The starting pitchers that were a key part of the success from 2012-2016 came to the O’s already developed. Chris Tillman is a rare example of the organization developing a young pitcher, but he wasn’t drafted by Baltimore.
As if this isn’t bad enough, we may be witnessing the Orioles botch the development of another uber talented pitcher: Dylan Bundy. Bundy was a consensus top prospect, with scouts drooling over his maturity and physical development. But the results at the major league level haven’t matched the hype. Since he firmly established himself in the majors in 2016, his ERA has risen from 4.02, to 4.24 last season, to 5.13 this season. Not the trajectory we were hoping for out a potential ace.
Just yesterday, Keith Law offered his thoughts on what has gone wrong: “He’s been overworked the last two years and it shows up in the results. His old fastball is gone, and he’s homer-prone as a result... Had he been used more carefully, or switched to a relief role, maybe the situation would be different today.”
Law is correct, the fastball isn’t what it once was; he’s lost about 3 MPH since 2016. Bundy’s innings increased from 24 in 2015 in the minors to 109.2 in 2016. That is a huge jump, but it is impossible to prove Law correct or incorrect.
But this much is true: when Bundy eventually leaves Baltimore, every O’s fan will fully expect him to fulfill his potential shortly thereafter.
Which brings us to the rebuild the Orioles have undertaken. In Dan Duquette’s infamous manifesto on the day of the Manny Machado trade, he expressly mentioned a number of areas in which the Orioles must improve: technology, international scouting, facilities, the draft, analytics, and more front office staff. All that is great. But in Duquette’s tenure, the O’s starting rotation has pitched to an ERA of 4.66, third worst in the majors during that time. Talented pitchers have found success elsewhere. Others had to find their success in less valuable bullpen roles. Given that, I would have liked to have seen “starting pitching development” added to Duquette’s laundry list.
If the O’s are to truly rebuild this organization and compete again in the AL East, the player development operation needs to be looked at closely. Director of Player Development Brian Graham has been is his position since 2013. Director of Minor League Operations Kent Qualls has been in his position since 2012. The Orioles have developed some nice position players during that time. But their success in developing starting pitching is nearly non-existent. There needs to be some sort of accountability there.
There are some organizations who seem to turn every pitcher they touch into gold. Could the Orioles’ pitching development problem be solved by hiring people from those organizations? Maybe, maybe not. They took a step in that direction by hiring John Wasdin as their minor league pitching coordinator prior to last season. He was a pitching coach in the Oakland organization. The A’s starting pitching ERA during the time frame mentioned earlier is tenth best in baseball. Perhaps it would be good to institute a different culture in the pitching development operation.
Whatever the problem may be, this rebuild needs to address it. I would hate to be agonizing over Grayson Rodriguez winning a Cy Young Award for another team in a decade.