In what’s been a season of surprises, this might be the biggest surprise of them all.
Tanner Scott seemed to be running out of chances. He had had three different stints in the major leagues, and none of them seemed to work out. He had a lively arm, but it was erratic. He worked himself into jams, found trouble where there shouldn’t have been any, and had a knack for making any situation he entered even harder to escape.
Fans were tantalized by the blistering fastball and hard-breaking slider, but the hopes for what could be took hits with every four-pitch walk. He had an ERA of 5.31 over his first three seasons, with a 1.648 WHIP. We liked what we figured the breakout would look like. We just wondered if we’d see it.
We’re seeing it this year. And we were right, it’s a sight to behold.
Scott’s age-26 season has been exactly what the O’s hoped they could get out of him, if not a little better. Entering Labor Day, the lefty was sporting a 1.62 ERA over 16.2 innings and 19 appearances, with a WHIP of 1.020. This from a guy whose WHIP last season was 1.785.
Is his stuff nastier on the mound? Not really. Scott is under 10 strikeouts per nine innings for the first time in his career, down to 9.7 from 12.6 last year. Are his control woes completely fixed? You’re getting warmer; he’s down to 4.3 walks per nine from 6.5 the year before, but for comparison’s sake, that figure is still higher than Mychal Givens had his last three full seasons in Baltimore, and higher than Zack Britton had in his stellar three full seasons as the Orioles’ closer.
Scott has just made himself harder to hit solidly, across the board. And whether that’s taking something off his pitches for the sake of accuracy, or hitting spots better, there’s no arguing the results.
Scott allowed 9.3 hits per nine innings in 53 appearances in 2018, and 9.6 in 28 outings in 2019. He’s allowing 4.9 this season. Opponents batted .263 against him in 2018 and .277 against him last season; they’re only hitting .158 against him in 2020. In his first full year, he got lefties out (.218 average) but not righties (.295). Now, whether you bat left-handed (.156) or right-handed (.160), you’re likely going back to the dugout disappointed.
Along the way, Scott’s turned himself into an effective two-pitch hurler. He’s always had the knee-buckling slider, holding batters to averages of .155 and .182 with it in 2018 and ‘19, respectively, while posting whiff percentages of 55 and 47.7 (according to MLB.com’s Baseball Savant). That was his out pitch, the one that lit up the scouting report, and it’s gotten even better this year. He’s allowing only a .103 average with the breaking ball, even while his whiff rate has declined to 43.2.
The biggest difference has been the fastball. Scott was more of a thrower than a pitcher early, and even though he threw hard, he was constantly reminded that major league hitters can hit a fastball that misses its mark. Batters hit .368 off the fastball in 2018, and .386 off of it in 2019. A good slider is an asset for sure, but without a good fastball to set it up, its effectiveness is greatly reduced.
This year, however, Scott has turned the fastball from a liability into a weapon in his arsenal. Batters are only hitting .214 off of it, more than 150 points lower than ever before. They’re slugging .357, almost 240 points lower than at any point. Even as his velocity, at 96.4 after back-to-back season of 97 and 95.9, has remained relatively the same.
That’s a huge difference. And it’s why a pitcher’s stats take the huge jump Scott’s have.
Scott has also taken a step forward in his handling of pressure on the mound. He wasn’t very effective before at stopping rallies, allowing hitters to bat .250 against him with runners in scoring position, and walking 13 against 14 strikeouts in 45 such plate appearances.
This year, he’s been a stopper. Summoned for 30 RISP instances, Scott is holding batters to a remarkable .042 batting average, with four walks allowed against 11 strikeouts. Twenty-one of 45 batters reached base against him with runners in position; this year, only five in 30 have been so fortunate.
Better pitches lead to better handling of pressure, which leads to better overall stats, and a growing reputation as the Orioles’ bullpen ace. In a season of good stories, the ascension of Tanner Scott has been one of the best.