Orioles fans were downright giddy at some of the strikeout totals they saw coming from many of the organization’s top pitching prospects earlier this season. It was instant gratification that Mike Elias and his new regime may actually know what they’re doing in developing young talent. Now, a few months after the initial shine has worn off and the major league team has scuffled mightily, those impressive strikeout totals remain.
Grayson Rodriguez, the O’s first-round draft pick in 2018 and their current top prospect according to MLB Pipeline, is dominating the South Atlantic League. The big righty has a 12.46 K/9 rate, an increase from 9.31 K/9 in rookie ball last year, and seems poised to graduate to the next level whenever the Orioles deem it appropriate.
Southpaw DL Hall has seen his ERA spike to 4.03 with the Frederick Keys in 2019, but that is more likely a result of some bad luck (.367 BABIP) paired with some dicey control (6.45 BB/9) than it is his ability to miss bats. The 2017 first-round pick has a massive 14.10 K/9 rate through 44.2 innings, an increase from the 9.54 K/9 he showed in Delmarva a season ago.
These inflated strikeout numbers are appearing throughout the ranks of the Orioles elite pitching prospects. Keegan Akin is pitching at Triple-A with 11.08 K/9, the best mark of his career. Blaine Knight was up to 11.14 K/9 in Delmarva, although he has taken a step back (5.23 K/9) since a promotion to Frederick. Hunter Harvey is striking out a batter per inning with Bowie. Dillon Tate has nearly doubled his strikeouts (4.65 K/9 with Baysox in ‘18, 8.14 K/9 in ‘19), and Michael Baumann’s 12.83 K/9 with the Keys earned him a recent promotion to Double-A.
The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli wrote a piece about Baumann back in May. It doesn’t get too deep into specific changes made by Elias’s crew in terms of pitching philosophy or technique, but it does drop this nugget:
The new front office, with minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt leading the way, has emphasized elevating the fastball above the zone and changing eye levels.
“Knowing that, and not worrying about painting the corners or trying to be perfect really helps,” Baumann said. “I just go out there and let it ride, and it opens up a lot with your secondaries...It’s kind of eye-opening. It’s a different way to learn, a different way to go out there and pitch and prepare, but it seems like it’s where baseball is going right now.”
What may be most impressive about these strikeout rates is that they extend beyond the cream of the crop. The Orioles have been able to help less-heralded prospects as well, which could mean that their minor league pool of pitching talent isn’t nearly as shallow as once thought.
Bruce Zimmermann saw his strikeouts drop-off following a mid-season trade to his hometown Orioles in 2018 (8.16 K/9 with Braves, 6.75 K/9 with Baysox). Now, he has regained all of that lost ground and surpassed it with a 9.17 K/9 rate this year in Bowie.
In Frederick, David Lebron is up to 11.63 K/9 after being acquired this past spring from the Texas Rangers. At the same time, 2016 first-round pick Cody Sedlock may quietly be revitalizing his career with an 8.67 K/9 rate with the Keys, a massive improvement from the 5.75 K/9 he posted last season.
The Shorebirds may have seen more development than anywhere else in the organization when it comes to pitcher strikeouts. Zach Matson leads the way with a massive 15.39 K/9 rate in 33.1 innings. Tim Naughton has been impressive as well with 13.66 K/9. Not to mention Drew Rom (11.75 K/9), Ofelky Peralta (11.46), Gray Fenter (11.09) and Matt De La Rosa (10.75) are all sitting down opposing hitters in bunches.
Unfortunately, these strikeouts have not made their way to the big league Orioles just yet. Despite facing the second-most batters in the league, the O’s pitchers have the third-fewest strikeouts.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they are without impressive individual performances. Shawn Armstrong and his 11.14 K/9 has been one of the few bright spots in the bullpen. Andrew Cashner has seen a slight bump (5.82 to 6.12) in his strikeouts. And Mychal Givens has a ton of strikeouts (13.06) but has struggled with walks and home runs.
This is likely the result of a few converging factors. First is that the big leagues are a lot tougher than the minor leaguers, and it’s harder to strikeout hitters at this level. Second, it is likely much tougher to change the methods a big leaguer uses to be successful. After all, whatever they were doing was good enough to get them to this point. Why change it now? And third, the players on the Orioles 40-man roster aren’t very good compared to the average major leaguer.
As has been said many times before, the current state of the Orioles is something we all simply must suffer through before the front office feels it is time to start promoting the players that will form the foundation of the organization’s next competitive team. It’s possible that a few of the guys currently donning the orange and black will be part of a future Orioles playoff team, but the vast majority are placeholders meant to buy time until the young guns are ready to fire.
For now, it’s fun to see the minor league box scores packed with strikeouts, and a thrill to watch clips of Hunter Harvey throwing 100 mph. At the very least, it gives us hope that better times are on the horizon. As for how far away that horizon may be, it’s anyone’s guess.