When you’re more than 40 games below .500 and on your way to being swept for the second straight series and third time in four tries, a single inning pitched by one reliever would seem merely to be a footnote.
Unless that pitcher is Hunter Harvey. Because then it’s big news.
And as well it should be.
Harvey’s odyssey has been one of the most frustrating in recent memory for Orioles fans, but it was hard not to feel spurred on by the brief image he showed Saturday night. Pumping high-90s heat, Harvey fanned two of the four batters he faced, and raised the eyebrows everyone in the Orioles community was hoping he would when he was drafted in 2013 and soon become one of the team’s most promising prospects.
It was just one inning, but it was another positive step in what’s been a season of them for Harvey. And it’s the kind of success story the Orioles need to get from their other pitching prospects if this rebuild is going to go according to plan.
To put it kindly, the last decade-plus has seen anything but.
Failure with pitching prospects has dogged the Orioles throughout this millennium. One could trace the costly misses back to 2002 with fourth overall pick Adam Loewen, but the more relevant mistakes began with Dave Trembley’s so-called “cavalry” in the late 2000s. That was a group made up of Brian Matusz (fourth overall, 2008), Jake Arrieta (fifth round, 2007) and Chris Tillman (second round, 2006 by Seattle), only one of whom, Tillman, panned out as a starter with the Birds. Arrieta went 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA as an Oriole, and Matusz, while finding success as a situational reliever, nevertheless went 21-33 with a 5.61 ERA as a starter.
And those were just the pitchers who progressed far enough to raise the expectations; Matt Hobgood, the fifth overall pick in 2009, never even made it so far as Triple-A baseball. Fortunately for the Orioles, positional player development fared much better, and with homegrown players like Nick Markakis, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop leading the way, Baltimore turned into a consistent contender.
The stunted growth of the team’s second batch of can’t-miss pitchers, however, made the stay among the league’s top teams a short one. Kevin Gausman (fourth overall, 2012) never found consistency and was eventually jettisoned at last year’s trade deadline, and Dylan Bundy (fourth overall, 2011) had his career sidetracked by injuries, and with a 5.37 ERA over his last two seasons could be running out of chances.
The third pitcher of that group was Harvey, 2013’s 22nd overall pick, whom Orioles fans must hope is beginning to shift the franchise’s fortunes with pitchers.
Harvey, after all, was on track to be the sort of bust that all the aforementioned players were. He couldn’t get healthy, couldn’t stay healthy, and couldn’t get men out regularly enough in the rare times he could take the mound. He missed all of 2015 and pitched in only 22 games between 2016-18, and last year had a 5.57 ERA at only Double-A Bowie.
Here’s where the narrative changes, however: Harvey picked himself up. Converted into a reliever, he became a dominant power pitcher, posting a 2.70 ERA this season in 26.2 innings out of the bullpen. He struck out 35 batters, posted a 0.875 WHIP, and most importantly, stayed healthy while doing it.
Now he’s gone from being a 23-year-old meandering through the minors to a 24-year-old with a clear role in the Orioles’ future. A move to the ‘pen, as was the case with Matusz, is often a last-ditch way to salvage some value from a pitcher, but even if that was the formula with Harvey, his potential new role would be far from a consolation prize. Ace relievers are vital in this day and age, and a pitcher who can come into the game at a moment’s notice and blow the hitters he faces away is a coveted commodity.
Should Harvey be able to seize that role, it would be a change to the script involving young Orioles pitchers, and the team needs that change to be a permanent one. Cavalry No. 3 could be forming, with Grayson Rodriguez (11th overall, 2018), D.L. Hall (21st overall, 2017), Michael Baumann (third round, 2017) and Dean Kremer among the team’s most promising young arms.
So far, the returns are good on the young guns. Rodriguez is 9-3 with a 2.59 ERA and 12.6 Ks-per-9 at Low-A Delmarva. Hall is 4-5 but with a 3.46 ERA at High-A Frederick, and he’s striking out 12.9 per 9 and holding batters to a .189 average. Baumann is 4-2 with a 2.31 ERA in Double-A Bowie. Kremer, acquired from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade, went 9-4 with a 2.98 ERA in Bowie and just got the call to Triple-A Norfolk. All four are ranked among the team’s top 10 prospects.
The Orioles need those pitchers to make it. Without them, the rebuild doesn’t have enough of a push to generate the results the team is hoping for.
In Hunter Harvey, the O’s have seen proof that good news can come from the pitching reserves - and from one of the pitchers flirting most heavily for a lost career, no less.
Now Baltimore needs for those success stories to have just been getting started, and not marking a one-time fluke in the franchise trend, on that Saturday night in Fenway.