On Wednesday night, after Spenser Watkins turned in a career-best 6 2⁄3-inning, one-run start in a narrow 2-1 win over the Rangers, CamdenChatter HIO’sFan hit the nail on the head:
So this regime has made a Rule 5 pick (Wells) into a solid starter. Turned a nobody (Means) into a semi-ace. And an even more nobody (Watkins) into a decent #5 starter. And they also fixed Kremer after a horrid year last season.
Man, I’m pumped about the future.
It’s true. A rotation composed of a former Twins Rule 5 guy (Wells), an opener type who bombed out of the Nationals organization (Austin Voth), a veteran with a 5.17 career ERA (Jordan Lyles), a youngster with a 7.55 ERA in 13 starts last year (Kremer) and a typical AAAA-type who almost retired in 2020 to become a high school coach (Watkins) has no right to be pitching this well.
And yet, here we are. This past weekend, against first-place Minnesota, O’s starters recorded three straight quality starts, allowing three earned runs over 18 1/3 innings for a series ERA of 1.47. Their offense lifted them in the first two games against Texas, but Watkins’ outing gave them the win and series sweep in Game 3 on Wednesday. Over their last 19 games, O’s starting pitchers have allowed one or zero earned runs in 14 of them. Their starting rotation ERA of 2.45 over the last two weeks is the second-best in MLB, and in starter WAR, Fangraphs ranks them the best in baseball during that stretch.
The O’s are assuredly overperforming (though if you want to take the bet that they remain a Top-3 MLB rotation all year, by all means). But considering how low the baseline was/is, the results are astonishing.
One of the important stages of a rebuild is adding talent via drafting and trades. The Orioles are only just in the beginning stages of doing the first, and haven’t even started doing the latter. This recent stretch of pitching success is coming without prospect aces DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, with John Means, Chris Ellis and Kyle Bradish temporarily on the shelf, and without a big-ticket free agent in the rotation. Knowing that makes what they’re doing right now all the more impressive.
Which is why credit has to be given to the Elias regime, especially pitching coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes—and to all the data this team said they would bring to bear on the art of throwing a baseball. What is clearly happening before our eyes is that Orioles pitchers are throwing a better selection of pitches that, in turn, are much sharper than before, and to pretty stunning results.
In his last start out in Minnesota, Orioles right-hander Tyler Wells allowed one run in a career-high six innings, improving to 7-4 and lowering his ERA to 3.09 in 75 2/3 innings this season. Wells is 5-0 with a 1.93 ERA over his last five starts, and the O’s have won in each of his last seven. We don’t have data on Wells’ pitch usage when he was with Minnesota, but suffice it to say the Orioles have tinkered: even from last year to 2022, Wells’ fastball usage dropped 16% and he increased his changeup and curveball frequency by almost 10% apiece. If it looks like the O’s have helped Wells sharpen up the changeup, they have: the pitch averages 200 more RPM this year than last. And most notably, he’s now using his off-speed stuff (changeup, curveball, sinker) to finish off hitters; he didn’t used to do that before.
Spenser Watkins famously came close to hanging up his cleats before the O’s salvaged his career, but even so, his 8.07 ERA in 16 games in 2021 wasn’t inspiring. Over his last three outings since coming off the injured list, he’s 2-0 with just two earned runs in 17.2 innings. Watkins, too, is a very different pitcher from last year: his fastball usage is down to 38.4% and he throws a pitch that’s brand-new for him in 2022, the slider, 20% of the time. His curveball and his changeup are also dramatically sharper this season, a fact which the spin rates on both pitches bear out, too. His expected totals remain not great, but if Spenser Watkins is living dangerously, then rock on, sir, and keep it rolling.
Dean Kremer, who led the minors in strikeouts in 2018, was a very bad MLB pitcher in 2021. His ERA was 7.55, and his exit velocities were in the bottom 1% of the league. Batters hit Kremer hard, really hard. This year, that is not true: in fact, his average exit velocity is in the better half of the league. What gives? Again, the fastball usage is way down (almost 16%), and the cutter and the changeup are more frequent (8-9% increase in each). Plus, according to Statcast data, Kremer reshaped not one, but all of his offspeed pitches between last season and now: his changeup added four inches of drop, his curveball 300 RPM of rotation, and his cutter 1.6 inches of horizontal movement. Kremer’s stuff looks sharper because it is.
Jordan Lyles, the 12-year veteran, had certainly the least need for an extreme makeover of his stuff, but the Orioles regime has still put their mark on him. Lyles’ Statcast Pitch % by Season graph looks like a toddler drew it, so tinkering is not unknown to the righty. What he’s done since join the O’s, though, is the same as the others: cut down on the fastball, increase the slider, and way increase the sinker and changeup. So far, so good: his slider and sinker have been his most effective pitches, and his season ERA is almost half a run lower than his career total.
For years, the Orioles were the team that squandered the pitching talent it drafted or signed, taking a Jake Arrieta or a Kevin Gausman and making them into something “meh,” if not downright bad. Today they’re taking good-to-average MLB throwers, helping them develop distinct and better pitches and plans of attack to use them, and having surprising success in doing so. Looks like it’s safe to say: the darkest days are behind us.