There are better days ahead for these Orioles. Expectations are that, while the 2019 Birds should improve upon the 47 wins by their predecessors, they may still be the worst team in baseball. Most of the talent in the organization remains down on the farm, where it will stay for much of the upcoming season. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to be excited about the current crop of Baltimore big leaguers. In fact, there is one player in particular that seems poised to break out: left-handed pitcher Tanner Scott.
We are a bit removed from Aroldis Chapman signing his eye-popping $86 million deal with the Yankees, but relief pitchers remain en vogue. Teams have restrained themselves when it comes to adding late-inning arms, but the best of the best continue to reel in major salaries. This off-season alone, Zach Britton earned a three-year, $39 million deal, Andrew Miller signed a two-year, $25 million pact and David Robertson received a two-year, $23 million contract. Scott has the potential to provide similar value to those high-priced hurlers at a fraction of the cost.
The hard-throwing lefty spent most of his time with the big league club in 2018, but this season is expected to be his first on the Opening Day roster. It’s a deserved promotion. Scott’s 5.40 ERA and 4.74 BB/9 from last year look a bit beefy, but his 3.40 FIP and 2.96 xFIP are much easier to swallow. It gets even better. The 24-year-old struck out 12.83 batters per nine innings and had a 31.7 percent strikeout rate. Both numbers were the best on the Orioles and ranked near the top of the league at large.
Scott has the ability to light up the radar gun with a fastball that touches 100 mph and settles in at about 97 mph. But it’s his slider that has baffled hitters. Last year, opponents hit .155 with a .252 slugging percentage against the slider while whiffing at 55 percent of offerings. It’s a great pitch that nears the dominance of fellow lefty Josh Hader and his slider.
The fastball, however, is holding Scott back. Against that pitch, opponents hit .368 with a .594 slugging percentage, and they were swinging and missing just 17.4 percent of the time in 2018. His struggles with the pitch make the success he has had with his slider that much more impressive as he only has two pitches in his current arsenal.
The southpaw could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the analytical influx that is expected to come to Baltimore. His high spin rate makes for the perfect tinker toy to Mike Elias, and could help to correct his struggles against right-handed hitters (.295/.377/.500 vs RHH, .218/.317/.322 vs LHH in 2018).
In 2018, Scott threw just 48 of his 545 pitches to right handers up and in. Instead, he preferred to attack down and in. With his slider, that strategy makes sense, but a high spin fastball can yield positive results up and in.
This article from Six Man Rotation does a great job of explaining this idea in better detail than I can, and it sites Scott specifically, using a metric called “Bauer Units”:
“(Aroldis) Chapman throws more pitches up in the zone compared to Scott. Chapman threw 45.7% of his pitches down in the zone, that is a 13.56% decrease in pitches down compared to Scott. Despite both having a similar spin rate to velocity ratio, Chapman is more successful because he is able to use his fastball as an out pitch compared to Scott.”
Throwing up in the zone gets dicey when a pitcher has middling velocity. Scott has elite velocity and, along with it, high spin. That means that when he throws a pitch up in the zone when it leaves his hand, it is more likely to remain up in the zone by the time it reaches the batter. Pitches up in the zone look enticing to hitters, but they are difficult to square up and make contact with in any meaningful way. In short: Scott needs to change his approach, especially against right-handed opposition.
As a reliever, Scott really only needs two good pitches. He has one in the slider, and has the makings for another in that fastball. The Orioles could attempt to teach him a change-up or a two-seam fastball to combat his right-handed demons, but that could just confuse the issue and set-back his other offerings. For now, the better bet is to further develop what he has. Scott may not throw in the upper-90s forever. Once his fastball starts to go, that will be the time to introduce new pitches, but hopefully that is several years away.
The Orioles pitching staff is, in general, a bit of a mess. It’s unclear who will be in the starting rotation. The bullpen was ravaged by last summer’s trades. Dylan Bundy may never reach his potential. Mychal Givens could be traded at any moment. And it’s likely that almost none of the team’s current hurlers will be part of the next O’s playoff team. Scott is the exception.
There is something special about Scott. He makes big league hitters look silly, and yet there is room to improve. It’s easy to see him becoming the “fireman” of a playoff team that makes a run deep into October. We all got a taste of it in 2018, and it will be exciting to see how his game has changed in 2019.