If the Orioles had one thing to feel sure about going into this season, it was Tanner Scott.
Uncertainty was everywhere on the Baltimore roster, but not with the 26-year-old lefty. Scott had been rough in 2018, better in 2019 and terrific in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, sporting a 1.31 ERA in 25 appearances, a 1.065 WHIP and .164 batting average against. He had finally seemed to mix his always-impressive power pitching repertoire with the control he had always lacked.
Instead of being another step forward, however, 2021 was a step back to the past for Scott. He could still blow hitters away, striking out 70 in 54 innings — a rate of 11.7 per nine, up from 2021’s 10.0 — but the consistency and command wasn’t there. Scott finished with a 5.17 ERA, his highest in three years, and his batting average against climbed 70 points to .234. His ERA+, measuring his ERA in relation to the league (100 is always league average) was a remarkable 361 in 2020. This year, it was 88.
The problem for Scott wasn’t the life behind his pitches, necessarily. Scott was in the 92nd percentile across the league in fastball velocity in 2020, according to MLB.com’s Baseball Savant, and 92nd this year as well. His fastball spin rate went from the 99nd percentile last year to 98th this year. His barrel percentage — measuring, in a nutshell, how often batted balls were hit in such a way that they would go for a base hit 50 percent of the time — got better; he was in the 85th percentile last year, and 88th this year.
That’s a long-winded way of saying: Scott’s stuff was still pretty good.
The problem was two-fold, or perhaps a cause-and-effect scenario. Scott didn’t induce poor contact enough, and his command and control dipped. Scott’s walk rate went from 11.6 percent to 14.7, and he walked 6.2 batters per nine versus 4.4 in 2020. And his fly ball and ground ball rates fell while his line drive percentage climbed from 18 percent to 27.5. Essentially, hitters may not have made excellent contact more, but they made good contact more, reflected in his BABIP going from .224 to .318.
Normally, a high BABIP indicates luck or lack thereof for the pitcher. But the aforementioned numbers paint a less fluky picture for Scott. In an eye-opening stat, Scott went from being in the 93rd percentile in average exit velocity to 21st in 2021. That’s a massive change, and clearly speaks to Scott’s diminished ability to make things hard on opposing hitters, whether that’s location or pitch selection or any other reason.
This wasn’t the story all year. Scott didn’t allow an earned run in seven of his first eight outings, and on May 19 his ERA stood at 2.12. Back-to-back rough outings caused it to jump to 3.93, but by July 18 he had worked it down to 2.65. His average against stood at .180, his WHIP was at 1.366, and there wasn’t anything overly concerning.
From there, however, things went sour. Scott made 20 more appearances and struggled mightily, posting an ERA of 10.80 over that stretch and striking out only 17 in 16.2 innings. His WHIP was over 2, and batters hit .333 against him.
As is often the case with relievers, it was a matter of consistency. In 46 of 62 appearances, Scott didn’t allow an earned run. So in nearly three-fourths of his outings, Scott did his job for the O’s. And his last outing, when he gave up two homers and six runs on six innings to Toronto while getting only one out, really made his final stats look uglier than they were.
But still, Scott did carry a 4.19 ERA into that game, so the story of his up-and-down season had already been written.
This all being said, there’s plenty of reason to feel good about Scott going forward. He’s only 27, and he still has the arsenal of being a late-game weapon in the bullpen. And while he becomes eligible for arbitration this coming season, his final stats shouldn’t throw his price tag way out of the Orioles’ comfort zone — though, with their eagerness to save money and willingness to deal the assets they have, it’s probably a fool’s errand to assume how they’ll proceed this winter.
Should Scott be back next season, though, he’ll have a good foundation to work from as he tries to capture his form from 2020. Command has always been the issue with him, but it’s easier to work with a clear area of focus, versus if he needed more life on his fastball and break on his slider and additional pitches and so on and so forth. He was a weapon before, and there’s no reason to think, with some tweaking, he can’t be one again.
Tomorrow: DJ Stewart