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What’s next for David Hess?

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Among the litany of Orioles pitchers that failed to get outs, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest David Hess failed the hardest. Spending the offseason in a performance lab, where can we hope Hess improves the most?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re able to take a step back and look at it with a realistic lens, this Orioles offseason has pretty much gone according to plan.

Likely the most significant addition of the winter, Jose Iglesias immediately gives the Orioles credibility at the shortstop position, and for a team that’s aiming to keep costs down, his contract (essentially a two-year, $6 million deal) is incredibly flexible. For the Orioles, Iglesias was about as good as it was going to get, and they found a way to make it work.

Mike Elias’ front office managed to avoid arbitration with all four potential cases. As a first-time general manager, arbitration, especially in the manner in which the Orioles are currently structured, would have made no sense whatsoever. Not having to go through the process of low-key slandering the small pool of capable Orioles talent was probably good process to avoid.

The rest of the league is deeper than the top half of the Orioles, thus with additions, so will be subtractions. Claimed last week, Richard Urena is the kind of slash bat and plug-and-play glove that the Orioles are perfectly suited to give plate appearances to. Oh, and he’ll only be 24 in next month. Marcos Diplan, another waiver claim, is an interesting enough arm that will probably see time with the big club at some point. He’s only 23.

Between trading Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy, the Orioles acquired five pitchers all under the age of 24. I wrote about why I like Rule 5 pick Brandon Bailey. Michael Rucker, the other Rule 5 pick, could also be a contributing piece.

The Orioles did the kinds of the things that rebuilding franchises should do, and that’s throw as many darts on the board as can be allowed, because this franchise is in a position to offer chances. Life can be weird. From experience, I’ve never hit the small, centered circle when I was actually trying.

When talking about the Orioles offseason, one of the other storylines was David Hess taking a 21st century approach to his winter training. As John Means did last winter, Hess has called upon the services of P3 (Premier Pitching & Performance) in St. Louis to help get him back on track. Considering what his numbers looked like a season ago, it was probably smart to try something new.

Among pitchers with at least 80 innings, only Peter Lambert and Jose Suarez had a higher ERA than Hess’ 7.09, while he had the highest HR/9 figure among all pitchers (3.15). According to Statcast, Hess was in the bottom one percent or worse in terms of hard-hit rate, with almost 50 percent of his surrendered batted balls being considered hard-hit. He had the worst expected slugging percentage (.607) among pitchers with at least 350 plate appearances against, as well as the worst expected wOBA (.397). Perspectively, Juan Soto’s 2019 wOBA was .394. He got hit really, really hard, and walks were far too in abundance.

Not a good combo.

When asked by MASN’s Roch Kubatko last month about how this offseason program compares to prior regimens, Hess said the following:

Previous offseasons I’ve really just gone in the weight room, and that’s something that I’ve always felt good about, my preparation in terms of that. But this is really the first offseason where I’ve had baseball-specific work outside of just playing catch. Really trying to work on delivery-based stuff. Working on, not necessarily arm strength - I’ve always worked on that - but really cleaning up my arm path.

This more or less seems like the kind of progressive thinking that’s crucial to actually getting better. And there’s plenty that Hess needs to get better at. Statcast also had Hess among the bottom 30 percent in terms of fastball and curveball spin, and considering what his stuff actually looks like, it’s easy to see why his numbers were so inflated.

What’s funny is in a season where Hess threw a lot—and I emphasize A LOT—of bad sliders, this slider to get Hunter Renfroe looking wasn’t even good. The pitch had hardly any tilt or sharpness to it. Other than the occasional slider that Hess is capable of snapping off, this is mostly what his slider has looked like as a professional. It’s hardly a trusted secondary pitch and you can see that from the couch. More so, according to Fangraphs, his -5.0 weighted slider value was the 16th-worst among pitchers with similar qualifications.

His fastball? Also not good. The utilizer of a fastball carrying a weighted value of -14.0 (13th-worst) in 2019, Hess’ fastball was mostly up in the zone. The problem is, his doesn’t ride, because he can’t create the same spin that someone such as Means does.

David Hess Fastball Heatmap
Baseball Savant

Kubatko also asked Hess what his ultimate goal was when he started on this new path, and his answer pretty much hinted that he’s aware of these lingering problems.

“I think it’s a mixture of all of the above. In talking with them and talking with the Orioles, Holt and Broc last season, we all kind of agreed that there’s more left in the tank, and that’s something we couldn’t really figure out a way to tap into it during the season so much because it’s hard to change things in the middle of the season. And so I’ve really used this time to, hopefully ... it would be awesome if it increased velocity a little bit, get a couple extra miles per hour. But helping in terms of tightening up breaking balls, utilizing my stuff a little bit better.

“Also, some of the evaluation stuff is used with Rapsodo (electronic training aid), so you can get the data behind everything. Truly understand like, ‘OK, we want this pitch to look this way. How do we make that happen?’ Kind of the repetition to make that a little bit more natural.”

What I love the most about places such as P3 or Driveline is that you really have no idea how a player may adapt to smart, informed methods of improvement. One of the things you see when Hess is getting hitters out in succession is he has an idea of how to get guys out. Right now, there’s no execution, and the stuff is certainly in need of improvement.

Will he able to find a slider grip that takes to a change in arm swing? Can he find a way to increase his average fastball velocity, gain more rotations per minute, or maybe even both? We just don’t know yet.

People are going to keep dogging the Orioles, and it’s fine. After the Ravens’ loss to the Titans, the impact of a franchise-best season led by the soon-to-be NFL Most Valuable Player being cut short by Ryan Tannehill will have forever numbed me to any further abuse. It’s a point that I feel I have to keep making, but small storylines such as Hess’ are why the Orioles are still going to be worth your time.

What if Hess makes changes that work for him, and he suddenly solidifies himself as a 26-year-old rotation piece? Will the league swallow him whole again after spitting him back out for the 2020 season? Pitchers and catchers report in less than a month, and I can’t wait to find out.