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An inability to throw strikes hampered several young Orioles relievers in 2019

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Branden Kline, Evan Phillips, and Tanner Scott flashed potential, but were relegated to Norfolk shuttle duty as they battled their control.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles
Tanner Scott’s career 5.4 walk rate is...not ideal.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the final installment of Camden Chat’s 2019 player review series. So far you’ve read about every current Oriole who spent any significant amount of time with the club this season (and if you missed any, check out the links at the bottom of this article).

We’ll finish up with a few of the stragglers, the guys who made their fair share of appearances in Baltimore but also spent a lot of time wallowing in the minors. I refer, of course, to the Norfolk shuttle guys.

You seem ‘em every year — those intrepid, rubber-armed hurlers who bounce back and forth between the bigs and Triple-A, ready to be called up when the O’s need help but never quite good enough to stick for very long. In 2019, those honors fell most often to a trio of relief arms: Branden Kline, Evan Phillips, and Tanner Scott.

None of the three made the Opening Day roster. By the end of April, all three were in the majors. Come mid-June, all were back in the minors; later, each finished the season on the Orioles’ expanded roster. Along the way, the O’s saw every possible combination of one or two of them on the club at a time. Scott was called up and sent down four times this year; Kline, six; and Phillips a whopping eight times.

As you might expect, none were particularly effective pitchers. But the best story of the bunch was Kline, a homegrown local product who overcame years of adversity to make his long-awaited MLB debut.

It was a grueling journey to the bigs for Kline, a Frederick native and the Birds’ second-round pick in 2012. His nightmarish string of injuries began in 2013 with a broken fibula that required surgery. Two years later, Kline underwent Tommy John, which was followed by two more arthroscopic procedures on his elbow in 2017. By then, he had missed two entire seasons on the mound. His baseball future was very much in doubt.

So for Kline to step on the field at Camden Yards this year was inspiring. Kline stayed healthy and productive in 2018 after converting to relief, dazzling for Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie and earning a place on the Orioles’ 40-man roster after the season. On April 20 of this year, he was promoted to the majors for the first time. It’s safe to say it was an emotional day.

“I cried for a solid thirty minutes after I got the news,” Kline told reporters. “Then when I told my wife, I cried some more.”

Kline began his big league career with a perfect inning against the Twins. Unfortunately, he returned for a second inning that game, and coughed up two homers. That erratic outing was a sign of things to come. In May and June, Kline followed a stretch of five scoreless outings in six appearances with a brutal streak in which he allowed runs in six consecutive games. His inconsistency earned him at least one trip back to the minors every month from June through August.

Kline was unscored upon in all nine September outings for the Orioles, covering 8.1 innings, although the underlying numbers were shaky: 12 baserunners — including six walks — and just three strikeouts in that span.

Kline flashed impressive stuff at times, including a fastball that sat at 96 mph, but struggled at throwing strikes — with a 4.2 walk rate — and at keeping the ball in the park, coughing up nine dingers in 41 innings. He didn’t fare much better in 18 games at Norfolk, walking 13 batters and allowing four home runs in 21 frames.

Kline, who turned 28 on the final day of the season, doesn’t have a lot of development time left in him, but perhaps he’ll find more of a groove in 2020, another year removed from his injuries. He’ll certainly be in the bullpen mix, if not guaranteed a spot.

He wasn’t the only Maryland native in the Orioles’ bullpen this season. So too was the Salisbury-born Phillips, one of four players the O’s acquired from the Braves in the Kevin Gausman/Darren O’Day trade in 2018. When he was acquired, Phillips had a reputation as a hard thrower who doesn’t always know where the ball is going, and...yeah, that tracks.

First, the good news: Phillips was a strikeout machine, racking up 40 whiffs in 28 innings. His 12.9 strikeouts per nine rate was the best of any 2019 Oriole besides Hunter Harvey, who pitched only 6.1 innings.

But, oh, the walks. Phillips issued 20 free passes, averaging 6.4 per nine innings, which won’t fly at any level. He was also tagged for 20 runs, giving him a 6.43 ERA for the season. (In 27 games at Norfolk, he pitched to a 4.08 ERA and a 3.9 walk rate.) His first stint with the O’s lasted a month; after that, he never stuck around the club for longer than a week at a time until September.

Still, like Kline, Phillips pitched his best in September. Six of his seven outings were scoreless, and he harnessed his control, walking just three batters while striking out 11. It’s a good momentum builder for 2020, in which the 25-year-old Phillips could stake a claim on a more permanent bullpen spot.

Meanwhile, Scott, the O’s sixth-round pick in 2014, is a yearly passenger on the Norfolk shuttle, a disappointing result for a pitcher expected to be a lockdown reliever in the bigs by now. He was coming off an erratic but promising 2018 season in which he flashed a wipeout slider to mix with his high-90s fastball while significantly slicing his once-unplayable walk rate. Beyond the Box Score’s Patrick Brennan tabbed Scott as baseball’s next relief star, and our own Tyler Young pegged him as a breakout candidate for 2019.

It didn’t happen. A shaky spring training, in which Scott allowed eight runs and six walks in nine innings, cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster. When he did get his chances in the bigs, it was the same old story — he could dominate at times, but the walks killed him. Scott walked five batters in his first four outings and 19 in 28 games for the O’s this year, averaging 6.5 per nine innings (up sharply from last year’s 4.7).

The rest of Scott’s season numbers were mostly in line with 2018, with a strikeout rate (12.6) and hit rate (9.6) just a few points off from last year’s totals. He lowered his ERA from 5.40 to 4.78 — albeit in half as many innings as last season — and was exactly a league-average pitcher by ERA+ (100). He spent almost half the year at Norfolk, where his walk rate was a more reasonable (if not impressive) 3.0, and his ERA a nifty 2.98.

Scott was by no means an embarrassment on the mound, and he’s still got the fastball/slider combination to succeed. But the walks, man. After five professional seasons, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll ever get them under control. If he does, the 25-year-old lefty may become that next great relief star after all. If not, he’ll never be more than an up-and-down guy, forever falling short of his tantalizing potential.

Kline, Phillips, and Scott. They come from different backgrounds, have different ceilings, and took different paths to the majors, but there’s one common thread that unites them: they’re not throwing enough strikes. The O’s can only hope at least one of the trio will take a significant step forward in 2020.

The full archive of Camden Chat 2019 player review posts:
Anthony Santander, Pedro Severino/Chance Sisco, Richard Bleier, Shawn Armstrong, Stevie Wilkerson, Dwight Smith Jr./DJ Stewart, Paul Fry, Chris Davis, Miguel Castro, Rio Ruiz, Richie Martin, Asher Wojciechowski/Aaron Brooks, Mychal Givens, Hanser Alberto, David Hess/Gabriel Ynoa, Dylan Bundy, Renato Nunez, Trey Mancini, Jonathan Villar