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Are Mike Baumann’s starting pitching days already behind him?

The Orioles' third highest pitching prospect has not started a game at Norfolk or Baltimore this season. How will his lack of an effective third pitch impact his future?

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The Orioles' search for starting pitching has spanned many directions. Mike Elias inherited John Means, Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall, and his hesitancy to draft pitchers in early rounds has been well documented.

The Orioles selected Tyler Wells in the Rule 5 draft and traded for Kyle Bradish. Baltimore signed Jordan Lyles to provide innings and veteran leadership, and the team has benefited from signing Spenser Watkins to a minor league deal.

Unfortunately for Elias, several of the young pitchers that beat him to the organization have failed to maximize their potential. Elias received plenty of attention when he said players like Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells needed to step up at the beginning of the season, and the club has already designated Lowther for assignment.

I’ve written ad nauseam about the group that includes Lowther, Wells, Bruce Zimmermann, Michael Baumann, and even Cody Sedlock. Zimmermann’s recent struggles make the conversation even more depressing, but the Orioles' search for starting pitching will not let this conversation die.

Baumann’s stuff has always received high marks. His size, hard fastball and impressive slider have always provided him a solid floor as a relief pitcher. The 6-foot-4 righty still ranks as the Orioles' third best pitching prospect, but the club’s approach to Baumann has been night and day compared to Hall and Rodriguez.

It’s important to note that Mike Elias did not draft Baumann. Sure, the former Houston assistant did not select Hall or Rodriguez either, but the pair are consensus top 100 talents. It’s possible that Elias does not grade Baumann as highly as others.

Baumann has worked out of the bullpen in all 16 games this season between Norfolk and Baltimore. The Orioles have utilized him in a multi-inning relief role that may help the club in the short term but is not doing Baumann any favors.

Baumann was shut down in 2019 with a flexor strain and arm issues lingered into 2020. Tendinitis slowed his debut last year, but the club still utilized him as a starter at Bowie and Norfolk. The righty made four relief appearance with the Orioles last September.

Baltimore optioned Baumann earlier this week to fit the 13-pitcher roster requirement that went into place. Baumann has already been optioned multiple times this season, and he would face waivers if optioned five times this season.

There does not appear to be a better time to stretch out Baumann if the Orioles ever intend to do so. The organization could slot a piggyback pitcher behind him at Norfolk and see if he approves on dreadful early numbers at Triple-A. Baumann has allowed 14 runs in 16.1 innings at Norfolk so far this season.

It’s possible that the Orioles no longer view Baumann as a starting pitcher. The 26-year-old is throwing harder after increasing his average fastball velocity from 93.6 to 96.1 MPH this season, but he does not always max out at the 97-to-98 MPH he has shown in the past. Baumann’s slider remains extremely effective, but his lack of a third pitch could be the nail in the coffin.

Opponents have tagged Baumann’s curveball with a .714 slugging percentage this season. The expected batting average of .444 rates even higher than the current .429. Baumann has thrown the pitch 16.7 percent of the time, and the pitch somehow holds a 0.0 whiff percentage on 47 pitches at the major league level.

A multi-inning reliever normally needs an effective third pitch that he can use around a 20 percent clip. Keegan Akin, a success story this year that leads the club in multi-inning relief appearances, throws his changeup 19.7 percent of the time. However, Akin does not have a single pitch as effective as Baumann’s slider.

Opponents hold a miniscule .105 expected batting average against Baumann’s slider on 44 pitches this season. If Baumann dropped down to a single-inning role, he could primarily use two pitches. Cionel Pérez, who has completed two innings in only two of 26 appearances this season, utilizes his third pitch just 7.2 percent of the time.

Baumann’s role and success appear tied to his ability to develop a league-average third pitch. The Orioles could easily allow Baumann extra time to develop the pitch at Norfolk with Austin Voth and Akin providing long relief out of the bullpen. Giving up on a starting role for a top pitching prospect is never easy. However, if the club does not believe in his ability to improve the hook, it may commit to the one-inning relief role sooner rather than later.