Left-hander Tanner Scott has never lacked promise, having been known for his pure stuff since being drafted by the O’s in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. The guy with the high-octane fastball, known to hit triple digits on occasion, entered his fourth MLB season this year at age 25.
The biggest knock against him has always been his control. Yes, he can blow the fastball past hitters, but he can also surrender walks in bunches.
After making his MLB debut in September 2017, Scott was a prominent member of the Norfolk shuttle throughout 2018 and 2019, getting optioned and recalled frequently in the early years of his career. 2020 marked the first time that he spent the entirety of a season on the Orioles’ major league roster.
It’s difficult to pinpoint whether that stability directly contributed to his improvement on the mound this year, but it couldn’t have hurt, right? Of course, you also can’t discount maturity and experience as pivotal growth factors as well.
Scott happened to set career best marks in several pitching categories this season, including batting average against (.164), walks per nine innings (4.4), left on base percentage (84.7%), groundball percentage (58%) and WHIP (1.06).
In addition to decreasing his walk rate — which was 5.4 BB/9 from 2017-2019 — Scott was much more successful with keeping the ball in the park. He went from 1.1 HR/9 from 2017-2019 to 0.4 HR/9 in 2020. He also maintained his usual high strikeout rates by registering 23 K’s in 20.2 innings pitched, which came out to an average of 10 SO/9.
Scott’s numbers were also aided by a .224 BABIP and while he had a good FIP (3.48), it didn’t match his incredibly low 1.31 ERA. So it’s reasonable to expect some regression next year and a likelihood that his future stats place somewhere between his lesser 2017-2019 form and his superior 2020 figures.
But still, Scott’s development during this trying and shortened baseball season cannot be overlooked. Coming into the year, the hope and expectation was that Scott would continue to grow and mature into a more consistent reliever. He would have to cut down on the walks and show more pitch control. Yet another hope was that he would be able to handle more high-leverage situations.
By the end of the season, he had shown the ability to largely meet those expectations.
As detailed in this excellent piece by the Baltimore Sun’s Nathan Ruiz, the Orioles drastically increased Scott’s strikes thrown by switching the lefty from a knee-lift to a slide step delivery this year and “the spin rates on both [fastball and slider] have increased by about 200 revolutions per minute each, according to Statcast...”
In a Todd Karpovich article from PressBox in mid-August, O’s manager Brandon Hyde expressed his evolving confidence in the young reliever:
When I feel like the game is in balance and could [go] one way or the other, whether it’s the fifth, sixth or seventh inning, and there’s a middle-of-the-order, usually a left-right-left situation, a dangerous left-handed hitter waiting, I have Tanner there ready to go...I’m going to continue to press the issue with Tanner a little bit and challenge him in spots, just because I really believe in his stuff. I know guys on the other team don’t want to see him come in a game, and so let’s see what we have.
At the time of the Richard Bleier trade back on August 1st of this year, there was even conjecture that the O’s were willing to trade away the established left-handed reliever in part because of Scott’s emergence this season.
According to Baseball Reference, Scott’s first year of arbitration eligibility will be 2022 and he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2024 season. This positions him almost perfectly to be around once the Orioles are good again, if you subscribe to the conservative theory that the club will likely be competitive again in about three years.
I’d like to think the Birds have a shot at being good again in two years or less, but who knows? Just look at the Blue Jays, who lost 95 games in 2019 and then turned around to make the playoffs this year. Yes, they were eliminated in the wild card round, but they still made the playoffs.
While we’re here speculating, there’s also the chance that Scott keeps improving in the next couple years and hikes up his salary in arbitration to the point where the O’s decide that money is better spent elsewhere, and therefore choose to trade him. Relief arms do tend to be more malleable and interchangeable than most other positions on a major league roster.
With more consistently strong numbers, the O’s could just as soon view Scott as such a trusted member of the back-end of the bullpen that they deem him worthy of investing in and keeping around.
While some circles view Hunter Harvey as the main contender for Orioles’ closer of the future, there is also the possibility that Scott seizes that role at some point. If he were able to lock that spot down — as a flame-throwing, shutdown left-handed closer — his value would increase exponentially.