The recent trade of Trey Mancini—coupled with a disappointing series in Cincinnati—has injected a somber sense of reality into what has otherwise been a season full of elation for Birdland. While the Wild Card is still very much in reach, these are solid reminders that some tempering of expectations is still necessary for this team. The O’s are ahead of schedule, but still have some glaring holes that need to be filled before they can genuinely lay claim to contender status.
If you were to poll Birdland on what remains the biggest hole in this Orioles team, the answer would be near unanimous: starting pitching. The numbers back that up. This season, the Orioles rank ninth in cumulative Wins Above Average—meaning there are some groups on this O’s team that are not just major league quality, but well above average. The starting pitchers are not one of them. Of all 30 teams, only the Nationals and Tigers have gotten worse play from their starting rotations.
That’s not to say that this Orioles rotation is utterly devoid of talent. Throughout the season, Baltimore fans have been treated to flashes of brilliance from the likes of Tyler Wells, Spenser Watkins, and Dean Kremer. The problem, though, is that they are just that—flashes in the pan instead of sustained heat. So, that poses the question: what do these pitchers need to improve upon in order to secure their place in the rotation long term? Let’s break down the areas where each of these three pitchers is in greatest need of improvement, as we look to see if they have what it takes to stay in the Orioles’ future plans.
Tyler Wells: 7-6, 94.2 IP, 3.90 ERA
Biggest problem he needs to fix: limiting hard contact vs. his fastball
Let’s be clear here, the 6’8” former reliever has good stuff. His fastball has above-average velocity with an elite spin rate. That spin rate generates some of the best vertical, rising movement of any fastball in the MLB. He also sports an upper echelon changeup, ranking among the MLB’s best when it comes to generating Run Value from the change. Couple that with a slider and curveball that have both shown signs of being plus offerings and you have the making of a strong arsenal for an MLB starter.
The problem is, most pitchers tend to pitch by establishing their fastball and then use that to set up their off-speeding offerings—and Wells is no different in that regard. While his ability to mix pitches has improved as he’s transitioned from reliever to starter, he still throws his fastball about 42% of the time. That wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that his fastball is his worst pitch. Although Wells does well in creating vertical movement on his heater, he doesn’t tend to create a lot of horizontal movement. This means a lot of his fastballs end up high in the zone, but also more center cut, making them easier to drive.
This problem with fastball location has led to increased levels of hard contact vs. Wells and his main offering. The average exit velocity vs. Wells fastball this year is 93.6 mph and he couples that with a hard hit rate of 54.5%. From those two stats, you get the picture of a pitcher who is always teetering on the edge of a big inning because he can’t prevent opposing hitters from teeing off on his fastball. Finding a way to locate his fastball more consistently down in the zone, or away from hitters— thus reducing the opposition’s ability to make hard contact—would go a long way in helping Wells stick in the rotation.
Spenser Watkins: 4-1, 58.0 IP, 3.80 ERA
Biggest problem he needs to fix: gaining more confidence in his slider
Unlike Wells, Spenser Watkins is not blessed with an above-average arsenal of pitches to work with. His average fastball velocity ranks in the bottom 10% league-wide, and he backs that up with a cutter whose velocity and vertical movement also lag behind the league average. In fact, opponents are hitting above league average on all of Watkins’ pitches—his fastball, cutter, curveball, and changeup. Well, all except one, that is.
Watkins’ slider is a recent addition to his arsenal as something he developed over the last offseason and began to show off in 2022. While opponents are hitting .269 or above against all of his other pitches, against the slider Watkins has held opposing batters to a .163 average. While the righty’s cutter and slider both feature above-average horizontal movement, the lack of vertical movement on Watkins’ cutter means it can tend to come off flat and more hittable. The slider, on the other hand, shows good movement on both planes, giving it the break and depth that make it hard for the opponents to square up.
The difference in effectiveness between his two preferred secondary pitches makes it all the more questionable that Watkins continues to throw three cutters for every two sliders. It would seem that if Watkins can continue to build confidence in his slider—and get it to the point where he’s comfortable throwing it more than the cutter—he’d become a more effective pitcher and more likely to stick in this rotation.
Dean Kremer: 3-3, 51.1 IP, 3.86 ERA
Biggest problem he needs to fix: not hanging his curveball
There’s an argument to be made that of these relatively unproven starters, Dean Kremer has made the biggest improvements in 2022. While he has struggled more of late (he posted a 6.94 ERA in July), he did also have a scoreless inning streak of 23 innings at one point and has shown that his true ceiling as a pitcher lies closer to the good end of these extremes than the bad one.
If you look at the heat maps for Kremer’s pitches in 2022, it’s easy to understand why his fastball and cutter have developed into well above-average offerings throughout the year. He commands his fastball in all areas of the strike zone and uses his cutter to expand the zone away from righties while crowding the inside corner of the plate against lefties. Yet, even with the command he’s shown of these two pitches, neither of them is truly an “out pitch.”
Kremer’s reliance on the two different fastballs has seen him be great at getting into two-strike counts but not always great at finishing those at-bats. While Kremer’s cutter has a decent swing and miss rate at 28.4%, there have been plenty of times this season where hitters have been able to lay off the cutter in two-strike counts because it’s clear as day that that’s the pitch Kremer is going to throw.
That’s where the curveball enters the picture. When Kremer debuted in 2020, the curve was his preferred secondary offering, as he threw his curveball 27% of the time. That number has dropped each of the past two seasons, to the point that this year Kremer’s hook only represents 9% of his total pitches. There are times when going away from the curveball seems like a mistake and other times when the curveball itself is a huge mistake.
Earlier this year, in back-to-back plate appearances against Aaron Judge, Kremer perfectly executed a curveball to strike out Judge—only to hang a curve so badly in the next at-bat that you knew it was a HR before Judge even made contact. The fact that Kremer’s biggest hot spot for his curveball is smack dab in the middle of the zone epitomizes the problem. The curveballs can be Kremer’s most effective out pitch, but he never seems to keep it down enough for that to be true. In order for Kremer to take that next step, he needs to make the curveball a true asset instead of a home run waiting to happen.
It seems likely that the Orioles intend to build their rotation of the future around a healthy John Means and elite prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. That leaves the likes of Wells, Watkins and Kremer looking at a potential fight for survival (of sorts). Iron out the issues that have popped up throughout 2022, and perhaps they can round out that rotation of the future. Fail to address these weaknesses, and they may be destined to join the long list of Orioles starting pitchers who never realized their full potential.