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A few Orioles stand to benefit from the team’s changing pitching philosophy

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Since 2012, only the Pirates have thrown more fastballs than the Orioles. As the organization modernizes, so too should its personnel.

MLB: Houston Astros at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

This time of year, I tend to find myself hoping to see the Orioles cannonball into the free agency pool rather than merely dunk a toe. Despite all of the recent bellyflops, sometimes you just want to see movement in the water.

But the reality is, this Orioles offseason hasn’t rippled that way. The Angebros and Mike Elias have instead gracefully entered murky waters like Chinese high divers, creating a brand of potential unbeknownst to their fanbase. One month before pitchers and catchers arrive in Sarasota, Louis and John are seeing their due diligence pay its dividends.

As the newly minted executive vice president and general manager of the Orioles, Elias has managed to secure the services of some of baseball’s brightest minds. From the big league team to minor league coordinators to international scouting, members of Elias’ inaugural staff have been hailed as well-versed and well thought of, with player development as a common chorus. Even the reported hires not yet formally announced follow the theme of being called “smart,” a word dissociated from the Orioles’ vocabulary for quite some time.

While Elias’ influence is prepared to assist a farm system in dire need of developmental leaps, we’ll immediately see his general baseball philosophy with the big club in a matter of weeks. And if Elias does indeed bring the Astros style of play to Baltimore, we can expect the Orioles to pitch to a style completely opposite of recent history.

Since 2012, the only franchise to throw more fastballs than the Orioles is the Pirates. In that same time frame, the only team to throw more curveballs than the Astros is nobody. Since 2015, the Astros are second-to-last in baseball in terms of fastball usage at 51.1 percent, and over the past four seasons, Houston has thrown the fifth-most sliders and the eighth-fewest changeups. Meanwhile, the Orioles mixed in the fewest amount of curveballs over the same four-year span, at a rate of 5.9 percent.

As modern contenders have proven, baseball is transitioning into a less-than-traditional game on the mound. For example, the American League’s current power quartet of the Red Sox, Astros, Indians, and Yankees are all among the bottom-10 teams in fastball usage the past two seasons.

The pesky Rays, a 90-win team a season ago, have managed the third-fewest fastballs in that span as well. It’s a thing, and the Orioles are going to have to change from a reliance of the fastball-changeup tunnel to throwing more breaking balls in more stressing counts.

In 2018, the Yankees, Astros, and Rays finished 1-2-3 respectively in fastball velocity. A surplus of quality breaking stuff, combined with top-end velocity, gives us a rational understanding of the profile of player Elias will likely offer more opportunity. If you’re wondering what that may look like, think the opposite of Ryan Meisinger.

Though still imperfect in many ways, the Orioles farm system does have arms prepared for betterment given a chance to mature in a superior learning environment. The actual Orioles already have some guys that fit into the Elias mold, as well. Here are a handful of pitchers the Orioles could possibly prioritize for playing time this coming season, based on the new GM’s requisites:

Jimmy Yacabonis

Though Yacabonis has yet to make any significant contribution at the major league level, his stuff is still much too explosive to chance elsewhere. Encouragingly, through his final 20.2 innings of 2018, Yacabonis posted a 2.61 ERA despite middling strikeout and high walk numbers, while also inducing more ground balls. With an average fastball velocity of 93.8 mph a season ago, Yacabonis’ heater is capable of reaching the mid-to-upper 90s with dynamic arm-side run. And his slider is kind of gross.

It’ll be interesting to see how Yacabonis is welcomed by the new front office and coaching staff, given he’s entering his age 27 season and has only 60.2 big league innings. Matt Kremnitzer, who now writes for The Athletic, discussed Yacabonis’ transition from reliever to starter in November, and noticed Yacabonis found comfort in a new role. While not necessarily a a high spin rate guy, his stuff explodes, and given the lack of competitive depth within the franchise, Yacabonis should stick out this spring.

With a 62-32 fastball-slider split a season ago, you’d have to imagine we see more of his nasty slider setting up his running fastball, and not the other way around. Perhaps new eyeballs could ail his command issues, and if so, Yacabonis could really carve out a role for himself in 2019.

Dean Kremer

Kremer was acquired in the Manny Machado trade last summer, and was once seen as a mediocre part to a mediocre sum. After half a season in the Orioles system, some would say that he’s surpassed Yusniel Diaz in terms of hype. The minor league leader in strikeouts last season, Kremer is a long-levered 23-year-old righty who low-key dominated at all three of his stops in his breakout year. Recording a combined 2.88 ERA, Kremer’s 178 strikeouts in 131.0 innings led all of the minor leagues as we mentioned before, and he’s a player whose stock has certainly risen over the last calendar year.

Kremer’s got a solid mid-90s fastball and has a big curveball to go with an OK slider. There may even be more juice to be squeezed from his long 6’3 frame, and we’ll probably see him with the Orioles at some point this summer. Given his rising stock and the tools to sustain his trajectory, seeing how or if Kremer is reformed could prove significant.

Tanner Scott

During his limited time as a big leaguer, Scott’s reputation as a flamethrower proved there is smoke where there is fire. In 2018, Scott’s average fastball was 97.1 mph, with a high-spin slider capable of reaching the low-90s. Even though he is simple coming down the mound, Scott has continued to have issues with his command.

Owning a walk rate of 11.7 percent in 2018, Scott’s issue with free bases has kept batters from respecting what is a power arm from the left side. Amazingly though, Scott still managed a 31.7 percent strikeout rate last season. Sure, walks and a general feel for the strike zone are issues, but striking out as many batters as he did proves his stuff demands to be harnessed.

I’m curious as to how Elias’ pitching guys look to unlock the secret to Scott throwing more strikes, because if it can be done, there aren’t many lefties in the big leagues right now that can sling triple digits, while also possessing a sharp, quality slider. The issue is that Scott simply isn’t at a point where he can be relied upon to execute his pitches, and until then, the results will continue to be sporadic. Still, Scott has the tools to be a unique asset to a rebuilding team in need of such things.