Maybe it’s something about being an Orioles fan, but whenever I hear about a young O’s pitcher getting injured, I always immediately fear the worst.
I know it’s an overreaction. But it’s unavoidable. This is a team that’s been notoriously unsuccessful with pitching prospects. Too many to count have seen their careers stall out soon after they reach the majors — or long before they ever get there — whether it’s because of ineffectiveness, poor development, or, yes, injuries. Minor ailments become significant ones, which become career enders. Orioles fans, perhaps more than anyone, are all too familiar with the phrase There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. We might as well put TINSTAAPP on our license plates.
So when Mike Baumann, the promising young Orioles right-hander, fell victim to a right flexor strain at the Bowie alternate site in August 2020, O’s fans could be forgiven for thinking, “That’s it. He’s done. Yet another pitching prospect fallen by the wayside.” A flexor strain isn’t among the most career-threatening afflictions for a pitcher, but in this organization, you just never know.
Adding to the consternation was Baumann’s rocky return to the mound early this year. At Double-A Bowie, where he’d spent much of the 2019 season, he had a heck of a lot of trouble regaining his form. In his first outing for the Baysox, Baumann threw 33 pitches without getting out of the first inning, giving up two hits, walking a batter and plunking one, coughing up a homer and uncorking a wild pitch. Yeah, I’d say he was rusty.
Baumann continued to battle his control for the next month as he worked his way back to full strength. In his first six starts with Bowie, Baumann surrendered 14 walks in 16.2 innings, also giving up 16 hits — including five home runs — and posting an 8.64 ERA. He walked three or more batters in four of those outings. In short, he didn’t look anything close to major league ready, a disappointing turn of events for a prospect who some thought might be an option for the Orioles’ rotation by midseason.
Prior to the injury, Baumann’s ascent through the Orioles’ farm system had been impressively smooth. The O’s drafted him from Jacksonville University in the third round in 2017, one year after they’d selected his college teammate, Austin Hays. Baumann hit the ground running as a pro, posting a 2.83 ERA for then-short-season Aberdeen in 2017. He steadily climbed the ladder from there, from Low-A Delmarva in 2018 to then-High-A Frederick, where he spent parts of two seasons before advancing to Double-A in 2019.
It was at Bowie that Baumann pitched the game of his life, tossing a no-hitter against the Harrisburg Senators on July 16, 2019, the first nine-inning no-no thrown by an Orioles minor leaguer since 2010. Baumann was simply dominant that day, needing just 94 pitches to get 27 outs, including 10 whiffs. If he weren’t already considered a top prospect, that performance put him squarely on the radar. Baumann finished with a 2.31 ERA in 13 games for the Baysox and slashed his walk rate to a career-low 2.7. He seemed ticketed for a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk in 2020.
And then came the pandemic that scuttled the minor league season. Then the flexor strain. Which is how the 6-foot-4 right-hander found himself back in Bowie this June, struggling to retire opposing hitters whom he’d dominated two years earlier. It wasn’t panic time, but there was cause for concern.
Happily, the story took a fortuitous turn. As Baumann continued to distance himself from the injury, his pitch arsenal and command improved dramatically. Beginning in July, as if a switch flipped, Baumann rattled off four consecutive strong starts for Bowie, issuing only four walks combined while striking out at least five batters in each outing.
The abrupt turnaround convinced the Orioles to move him up to Norfolk, where Baumann’s run of success (mostly) continued. He pitched all five innings in a rain-shortened Triple-A debut July 30, notching the win over Durham, and followed it up with six shutout innings in his next start. While his control wasn’t as sharp — he issued 13 walks in 27 innings at Norfolk, six of them in one disastrous outing — Baumann effectively limited the damage, working to a 2.00 ERA in six starts. Two months after struggling at Double-A, Baumann was putting himself back into the major league picture.
That opportunity arrived Sept. 7 when the Orioles called him up to the show. He made his MLB debut that evening in long relief, earning the win by pitching 3.2 effective innings against the Royals at Camden Yards.
That’s where the good vibes stopped, unfortunately. Baumann was torched for 11 runs in his next two outings by the Blue Jays and Red Sox. The Orioles optioned him Sept. 23 after his fourth and final major league outing, saying he’d reached his innings limit for the year (he threw 80.2 across four levels). His first taste of the majors was a mostly sour one; in 10 innings, Baumann scuffled to a 9.90 ERA, 1.900 WHIP, and had more walks (six) than strikeouts (five).
Still, prospect pundits see a lot to like in Baumann, who turned 26 on Sept. 10 (an excellent choice in birthdays, if I do say so myself). His upside is a potential mid-rotation starter, carried by a fastball that “generates plus-plus vertical movement” and a slider that “induces weak contact,” writes FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen. His future as a starter, though, will depend on Baumann further refining his changeup and curveball, which he combined to throw for only 17 of his 185 major league pitches this year. Even if those two pitches don’t develop, “his fastball-slider combination could be devastating late in games, making his floor that of an impact reliever,” according to MLB Pipeline.
Baumann is likely to begin 2022 at Norfolk, but expect to see plenty of him in the majors during the course of the season. The Orioles should give him an extended opportunity in the starting rotation until he proves he can’t do it, in which case they can shift him to the bullpen and let him loose as a fireman.
I know. There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. But Baumann has the chance to prove an exception to the Orioles’ recent collection of flameouts.
Previous 2021 Orioles prospect reviews: Ryan McKenna, Alexander Wells, Brnovich/Peek/Pinto, Diaz/Bannon, Tyler Nevin, Vavra/Ortiz/Servideo, Zac Lowther, DL Hall/Rom, Hernandez/Basallo, Jahmai Jones, Hudson Haskin, Bradish/Smith, Hernaiz/Mayo, Cowser/Norby, Adam Hall, Kyle Stowers
Tomorrow: Jordan Westburg