During this past weekend’s series in Houston, we saw the Orioles’ starting pitchers blast off in a way that surely made Birdland reminisce about Orioles' pitching dominance of old. For the first time since early July in Minnesota, every starting pitcher in a series for the Orioles registered a quality start. This was different, though. Not only did the Orioles win the series, but it was against the Houston
Mancinis Astros—the best team in the AL.
Beyond the fact that the O’s were able to take two out of three in Minute Maid Park and help their immediate playoff chances, there is an extra level of satisfaction given who the opponent was. When the Orioles decided to hire Mike Elias away from Houston, the success of the Astros immediately become a measuring stick by which we would measure this Orioles’ rebuild. They were the blueprint that Elias & Co. would follow in propping up a downtrodden Baltimore franchise.
In that context, the performances we saw from Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer and Austin Voth this past weekend should offer Orioles fans a greater level of excitement than just wins and losses. This Orioles team is already ahead of schedule when compared to the Astros blueprint. Houston needed a transition season in 2014 before it could fully morph from a 100-loss ball club to a postseason contender. The Orioles have managed to make 2022 their transition season and breakout season all in one.
These starts over the weekend reinforce that this bunch of Birds is ahead of schedule when it comes to laying the foundation for a competitive major league pitching staff. Earlier in August, I wrote about changes we needed to see from several Orioles starting pitchers in order for them to take the next steps in their development.
For Kremer, his biggest area for improvement was keeping his curveball down in the zone. Through his first four starts in August, opponents were hitting .231 against Kremer’s curve—a marked improvement over his season-long number of .310. Still, 50% of the contact made against the righty’s curveball was hard contact—and he was consistently missing high in the zone, or even above it.
Saturday, Kremer’s curveball became a completely different weapon in his arsenal. He consistently located the pitch low in the zone, only gave up one instance of hard contact against the curve and allowed ZERO hits off his breaking ball. Kremer’s fastball/cutter combination has consistently proven good enough to get him through most starts. Controlling his curveball turns him into the type of pitcher we saw Saturday—one than can hold the AL’s best team to four hits and one run over 7.2 innings.
Bradish’s biggest problem has been clear all year: fastball command. For much of this season, the rookie’s heater has ranked as the worst pitch in baseball by Run-Value. Despite having good fastball velocity, Bradish has below-average fastball movement. Too often this meant that Bradish’s attempts at blowing his fastball by hitters ended up with a 95-mph, middle-of-the-plate meatball that hitters could tee off on.
Friday was a completely different story. Bradish flipped his fastball and slider usage—throwing 51% sliders to 34% heaters—and when he did throw the fastball he was consistently locating it at the top of the zone. This pitch mix adjustment and improved fastball command were key in Bradish’s career-best eight shutout innings against the Stros.
Then there was the magic worked by reliever-turned-opener-turner-starter Austin Voth on Sunday. Camden Chat’s own Andrea has already given us a wonderful article on the adjustments Voth has made since joining the O’s—adjustments that made him the surprisingly effective starter he is today. The biggest change—an increased reliance on a fastball-curveball combo—was on full display Sunday. Fifty-four of the 94 pitches Voth threw were either the heater or the curve, and Astros hitters only mustered a .063 (1-16) average against that combination of pitches.
This is far from the first time we at Camden Chat have heaped praise on the work the Orioles pitching coaches have accomplished with this group of young pitchers. When you watched Bradish, Kremer and Voth against the Astros, the signs of excellent development and progress were clear. The way that these coaches and pitchers continue to push toward the type of improvements we saw epitomized against Houston presents a ceiling for this group of pitchers much higher than originally imagined. That all of this was showcased against the Astros just makes it that much sweeter.
Much of the greater baseball-watching public may associate the rise of the Astros with the development of hitters like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Carlos Correa (as well as some trash can banging here and there). However, that first foray by the Astros into the stratosphere of contention was built on the development of pitching talent that was not seen as the cream of the crop.
After all, the Astros were the same team that took Dallas Keuchel from a soft-throwing seventh-round pick to a Cy Young winner. The same team that oversaw the development of Lance McCullers from a pitcher with a 5.47 ERA in High-A to a high-level contributor on multiple pennant-winning ball clubs.
If this past series is a sign of things to come, the Orioles have successfully repeated this trick and done so sooner in their rebuild than the Astros managed it. An even bigger beacon of hope for Birdland is the idea of this coaching staff getting to work with the crop of talent not yet in Baltimore. For their rebuild, Houston’s crown jewel when it came to pitching prospects—Mark Appel— turned out to be more glass than diamond. The Orioles will hopefully be able to contrast that with the riches represented by Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and pitching prospects Mike Elias has acquired in trades since taking over the front office.
A further sign of hope: the Astros followed up that period of developing pitchers by making the bold moves to acquire Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in trades, and achieving the final form in their pitching evolution. Yes, the Orioles are unlikely to soon have the Texas-sized budget, or willingness to part with prospects, to accommodate similar moves. However, Elias’ commitment to spending this winter creates realistic hope that these recent pitching developments are still only the beginning when it comes to the overhauling of a staff that finished three of the last four seasons with the worst ERA in the majors.
Pitching may not be the only problem that remains to be solved. There is and will continue to be plenty of discourse over how to correct the Orioles’ recent offensive inconsistency. Yet, while the series win in Houston may have only made a small dent in the Wild Card standings, it showed just how big of a dent this franchise has made in their reputation as pitching punching bags—which is something this member of Birdland thinks deserves plenty of celebration.