If you had anything resembling hopes for something positive from the 2019 Orioles before the season began, it was probably a vague feeling that maybe there would be some players who, freed from the shackles of whatever poor instruction they were receiving previously, might look better. A big reason that the team lost 108 games is that there were not many players who were immediately able to do this.
David Hess and Gabriel Ynoa were two of Dan Duquette’s leftovers who fit into this group. Whether pitching out of the rotation or in relief, they were not any good at all, each a big contributor to the Orioles, as a team, giving up home runs at an almost unbelievable pace. Each also achieved a dubious distinction for a pitcher to reach, with a 1-10 won-loss record for the season.
Pitcher win-loss records are not the final word on whether one pitcher was good or not. It’s not automatic that a 21-9 pitcher was better than a 15-12 one, or even, in strange circumstances, a 10-14 pitcher. We can safely draw a conclusion about a 1-10 pitcher, however. He was very, very bad.
In early April, there was a much more positive buzz about Hess. It feels like a whole lifetime ago now, but in his first start of the year, on the road in Toronto, Hess threw 6.1 no-hit innings. He was pulled from the game after a relatively small 82 pitches, since he’d thrown 42 pitches in relief just four days before that on Opening Day. He had walked only one batter and struck out eight.
The argument for pulling him boiled down to wanting to make sure to preserve his long-term health. Was that right? Maybe, sure. The sad thing about it, especially in retrospect, but which someone could have said even at the time, is that for Hess, an unheralded age 25 pitcher who was never a top prospect and never dominated any minor league level, he might never pitch that well ever again, so he deserved the chance to push it a little farther that night. And for the rest of the year, he didn’t pitch so well again.
At year’s end, the thing that still amazes me about Hess is that he gave up 28 home runs while pitching only 80 innings. Almost 8% of the batters that he faced this season hit homers. Even in the year of the home run, this was absurd.
It was not an accident that this happened. According to Statcast exit velocity data, Hess gave up an average exit velocity of 91.5mph, which was in the bottom 1% of pitchers in MLB this season. He did not pitch well and MLB hitters let him know it.
One might be tempted to conclude from the way that Hess pitched - he ended up with a 7.09 ERA and 7.26 FIP - that there were just no minimum standards for the 2019 Orioles. This was not actually true. A number of guys pitched their way off the 40-man roster during the season, including other holdovers like Mike Wright and Jimmy Yacabonis.
Someone with the Orioles must have liked something about Hess’s potential as other than a sacrificial lamb. Perhaps Mike Elias remembers his early time in Houston, when Dallas Keuchel transformed from a 5+ ERA pitcher at age 25 in 2013 to a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher in 2014 and a Cy Young in 2017.
Don’t hold your breath hoping this happens for Hess, but as long as he’s around on the Orioles, we might as well hope he can get better. Hess has a minor league option remaining for 2020, so if things don’t click for him right away, the team does have the choice to try to help him figure things out in Norfolk for a while.
If you can believe it, Ynoa was actually a positive WAR (0.1) player on Baseball Reference despite his 5.61 ERA in 110.2 innings this season. Those juiced balls pumped up the offense for teams this season even when they weren’t playing the Orioles.
It does not seem that the Orioles themselves believed it, either, as Ynoa was placed on waivers by the team recently. He went unclaimed and the team announced last night that Ynoa had rejected an outright assignment to Triple-A and is now a free agent. This choice will not cause me any lost sleep.
Ynoa tied for the team lead with 29 home runs allowed despite throwing 51 innings fewer than Dylan Bundy, who he was tied with. His Statcast profile has even more bad dots than Hess’s does, with Ynoa in the bottom 10 percent for exit velocity allowed, strikeout percentage, and fastball spin rate.
Of the top 30 pitchers in MLB in ERA this season, only three of them had a K/9 below 7. Ynoa’s K/9 was 5.4. It’s going to be hard to succeed like that. The Orioles were 1-12 when Ynoa started a game and 5-31 when he pitched overall. It wasn’t an accident.
Like Hess, Ynoa did at least manage to make it to season’s end on the roster. They liked him enough to keep him at least that long, although he didn’t stay in their good graces for long. Ynoa was pulled off the 40-man roster as the team moved Alex Cobb off the 60-day disabled list and back onto the 40-man. There were open spots, so they didn’t need to trim Ynoa to make room. They just did it. With how he pitched, it’s hard to argue differently.
The Fangraphs depth chart projected Ynoa as the #5 starter next season at the time he was released. That tells us more about the other available choices to the Orioles than it does about Ynoa. He was out of minor league options and probably would have been squeezed out at the end of spring training anyway.
Some day when the Orioles are good again, the pitching staff is going to look a lot different than it did this year. Maybe a full offseason of work with specific analytics-driven focus will make a difference for Hess. Maybe if they leave him in the bullpen for good, he will be able to work on that. Or maybe he will join a pile of pitchers who were here when the team was no good and will be gone when they’re better. Ynoa is already on this list. Hess, if he doesn’t pitch better, won’t be far behind.
Tomorrow: Dylan Bundy