The past four seasons of Orioles baseball have had horrible starting pitching on display regularly. One of the only positives about the 2019 rotation is that it involved failure from a variety of new faces rather than just the same old, same old.
Perhaps better times are coming soon. The Double-A Bowie Baysox came two wins short of winning their league championship this season. A big part of that success rode on their starting rotation, and a big part of that rotation’s success was 22-year-old Australian lefty Alex Wells.
Wells has been my favorite prospect in the system for a few years now. He stands out immediately just by virtue of being from Australia, a place that has produced few major leaguers, and included in his baseball story is the fact that he has a twin brother, Lachlan, who signed with the Twins. It remains a source of disbelief for me that the Twins did not sign both baseball-playing twins, but here we are, and the O’s are the ones who may benefit.
What made him a favorite goes back to his 2017 performance for Delmarva, when he issued just ten walks in 140 innings across his whole season. That’s an amazing feat no matter how far from the big leagues it happens.
Avoiding free passes has continued to be a strength. At Frederick last year, Wells’s walk rate increased to a still-good-but-not-amazing 2.2 BB/9, which he managed to shave back down to 1.6 for Bowie this year. That’s just 24 walks in 137.1 innings. At the MLB level for the Orioles this season, Jimmy Yacabonis walked 24 batters in 41 innings.
If not walking many batters was all that it took to put a prospect on the road to big league success, Wells would rate highly not only in the Orioles system but across the whole league. This is not the case. Prior to the season, Keith Law’s ranking of the Orioles system put Wells 19th. MLB Pipeline’s latest update, which includes 2019 picks and performance, rates Wells 20th. The Fangraphs board for the Orioles system goes out to 34 names and doesn’t include Wells at all.
What separates Wells from prospects who are seen to have higher ceilings is his lack of velocity. Pipeline’s scouting capsule on Wells notes that he operates “in the upper 80s and scraping 91mph.” It’s tough, though not impossible, to carve out MLB success with that kind of velocity.
Of the 120 pitchers who threw at least 100 big league innings this year, only 11 had an average fastball below 90mph. Most of the names below that mark are lefties, but most are also veteran pitchers who have declined to that level. If Wells made it as a young or young-ish MLB starter with that fastball, he would be in a very small club, if not a singular specimen.
Linked closely with the question of velocity for Wells is the question of whether he will be able to strike out enough batters at high levels to keep batters honest. Wells racked up 105 strikeouts this year, or a 6.9 K/9. With this measure, he would sit a bit higher, at 102nd out of 120 MLB pitchers with 100 innings thrown this season. The lone standout in the 2019 O’s rotation, John Means, is at 7.0.
It’ll probably be the quality of Wells’s off-speed arsenal that determines whether he makes it to or how long he stays with the Orioles. In his preseason assessment of Wells, Law wrote that “his curveball is a potential weapon but he needs a better changeup to have a chance as a back-end starter.”
Over his 24 starts this season, Wells posted a 2.95 ERA and 1.070 WHIP. We can probably conclude from that performance that his curveball and changeup were good enough to beat Double-A hitters. He had a great outing against the Yankees Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League Championship Series. Succeeding in MLB will require great, or at least OK, outings against the Yankees themselves.
There has been a steady stream of stories about the juiced baseballs, or however you want to label them, currently in use at the MLB level. Those baseballs were also used at the Triple-A level this season. Wells seems like he has passed the Double-A test, and we shouldn’t hold it against him that it’s the only test he was asked to pass this year. It is a point in his favor that he gave up just ten homers this season. However, better hitters with livelier balls will hit more off of him.
Also working in Wells’s favor is that he had a bit of a bounce-back with his ground ball rate this season. It dipped down to 34.8% last season at Frederick and was back up to 41.6% with the Baysox this year. This ground ball rate would have Wells in 66th out of the 120 MLB pitchers mentioned before. There are awful pitchers with better ground ball rates and great pitchers with worse ones. Still, I doubt it’s a coincidence that Wells’s 3.47 ERA with Frederick last year dropped to 2.95 with Bowie along with the increase in ground ball rate.
The Orioles are having Wells pitch in the Arizona Fall League this season, probably in part both to challenge him with that competition and in part to build up his innings count in case he does prove he’s MLB-ready in 2020. Wells has yet to top 140 innings or start more than 25 games. They won’t want to have him be worn out next September from never having pitched for long after August before.
GM Mike Elias has already shown that he’s not going to rush any of his younger prospects to the big leagues. Wells will just be 23 next season. This probably puts him in the group of guys who will not be rushed. It will be fun if his performance is good enough to make a strong case for a September or earlier nonetheless.
This is part of Camden Chat’s 2019 Orioles prospect review series. Yesterday was Bruce Zimmermann. Tomorrow is Rylan Bannon and Mason McCoy.