Any time a ballplayer changes teams, they get asked a really dumb and unfair question:
“What excites you most about [new team whose uniform you’re wearing]?”
I mean, think about it. If you were new in town, what would you tell a beat reporter who’s lived in the same place his whole life and covered the same team for decades? “Well … they gave me a contract?”
Of late, a lot of people who have landed on the rebuilding Orioles say something about the “opportunity to play.” Decoded, this means: “I wouldn’t necessarily cut it on another team, but I’m sure glad standards are lower here.”
So maybe we shouldn’t make a lot of intake interviews like this by guys on rehab projects like Félix Hernández and Matt Harvey, or prospects teetering on the edge of the big leagues like Tyler Nevin and Jahmai Jones.
On the other hand, the way the new faces are starting to talk about the Orioles, it makes you wonder whether there’s more here than just the clichés.
From a player’s point of view (or as near to one as I can approximate as a fan), one of the biggest knocks against the Orioles as an organization was the reputation for not developing talent. Especially pitchers. That included both hurlers who became better once they left—from Jake Arrieta to Dylan Bundy, and probably Kevin Gausman—and the high-draft pitching prospects who went nowhere—Matt Hobgood, Beau Hale, or Adam Loewen, anyone? The farm system recently came in dead last in the majors, and the international market was basically ignored.
And when it came to data, well, the Orioles were apparently in the Stone Age. It made me really sad in 2018 when Zack Britton was traded to the Yankees and—no, that’s it, that trade just made me really sad—and proceeded to have his eyes opened to the wide world of data. As Britton put it:
There’s a gigantic difference in how we use analytics here [in New York] compared to Baltimore. I’d never been exposed to that amount of information. And it’s not just “Here’s a stack of stuff to look over.” It’s [targeted] to each individual player. I don’t want to get into specifics, but some of it is how my ball moves, both my sinker and my slider, compared to different hitters’ swings. It kind of opens your eyes to things you maybe didn’t think of when you didn’t have that information.
Britton added, “If you look at the teams in the postseason, most are well-known for their analytics departments. Especially the Astros.”
But what happens to Baltimore’s look as an association if it starts to become, well, maybe not Houston Lite, but an analytics powerhouse in its own right? Things are trending that way, and it’s not just the rising farm system ranking that shows it.
Listen to what some of the Orioles’ new guys are saying about the coaching and analytics teams.
First baseman Tyler Nevin came over from the Rockies in the Mychal Givens trade. Compared to the Rockies, “the Orioles are more on the data swing for sure,” offered Nevin. “When I got here they had a Power Point ready for me, showing me, ‘These are the things you do well, these are the things we want you to keep progressing at. And this is why we got you, why we liked you in this trade.’”
Lefty prospect Zac Lowther recently offered, “Everyone in our organization has benefited in one way or another from the plethora of knowledge that [data-driven guys like pitching coach Chris Holt and director of player development Matt Blood] bring. And they are always willing to help you and create it to such an individual level that it is not a master plan. What works for Zac Lowther, what works for Michael Baumann, what works for Alex Wells.”
And then, of course, there’s Matt Harvey, the injury-plagued one-time Cy Young candidate whose offseason work at an analytics-driven pitching facility reportedly helped him add sink, spin, and speed to his fastball. Here’s what Harvey had to say about signing a minor league deal with the Orioles:
I talked to my agent (Scott Boras) quite a bit about it and I think with kind of the training that I did [at the pitching facility], between using the TrackMan and using the cameras that they use now, it’s obviously something that they do here [in Baltimore] quite frequently. Chris Holt, he’s studied that very well and knows a lot about it and seemed like they knew what I was doing wrong in the last couple years where it was a good fit to kind of get me back to throwing the way I did before.
Since posting a 2.27 ERA in 24 starts in 2013, the “Dark Knight” has been on an almost continuous downward slope, undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014 and then thoracic outlet surgery in 2016. But both the offseason training center and the Orioles seem to think that mechanics, and not a dead arm, are Harvey’s (correctible) problem.
If it works, it’ll be a win for all sides. As MASN’s Roch Kubatko puts it, while Harvey tries to change his recent pitching reputation, he’s helping to change how the Orioles are viewed within the industry.
“I think it’s a huge plus,” manager Brandon Hyde said of Harvey’s minor league deal with the team. “Our guys have positive track records with pitching and with getting pitchers better. You saw what Holty did with the minor league system, how much our minor league system improved. Even in that first year. Obviously, Sig (Mejdal) bringing over his analytic expertise and a lot of the people that he’s hired that dive into it, he has great info and we have great people working on our analytic team, so I think it’s great to hear that players want to play here. I’m hoping that continues.”
Bottom line: many of the 2021 roster hopefuls are here because of a dearth of talent. But more and more, especially if you’re a prospect, Baltimore is turning out to be a hopeful place to land.