Every time the Orioles think they have a handle on how good Brandon Erbe can become, the 18-year-old Pikesville native pitches just a little better.
First, he was a great value pick in the 2005 draft. Next, he was a strikeout machine in Rookie-level ball. Then, he jumped to a good start this season at Single-A Delmarva. And lately? If Erbe continues to dominate as he has, he may finish the season as one of baseball's best teenage pitching prospects.
"He started the season well, but now he's even better," said Orioles minor league director David Stockstill. "He's learning how to change speeds, read bats and think with the hitter instead of just throwing."
Erbe blossomed from a gangly youngster who didn't expect to make the varsity as a sophomore to a bona fide first-round prospect the summer before his senior year at McDonogh. His 95-mph fastball was all the talk among local prospect watchers.
But Erbe's path to the pros wasn't seamless. He went 2-5 as a senior. In the most anticipated game of his high school career, he was out-dueled by Steve Johnson of St. Paul's, who struck out 20 and beat Erbe, 5-2.
His struggles in high school, combined with a scholarship to the University of Miami, may have scared off some suitors. But the Orioles had seen Erbe hit 97 mph on the radar gun. One of their scouts, Dean Albany, had coached him in summer league.
"Sometimes, people will slip due to how they're pitching at a given moment," Stockstill said. "Scouts don't have a chance to see them too many times. But with Brandon, we knew what he could do and that gave us a leg up."
The Atlanta Braves have built a farm dynasty by drafting local players whom they've scouted more than other teams. It's a philosophy the Orioles have copied since scouting director Joe Jordan joined the club two years ago.
So when Erbe was still hanging out there in the third round, the Orioles snatched the local boy. Erbe had been too nervous to follow the draft on his home computer. He was helping his father uncover a swimming pool when he got the news that he'd been picked by the team he'd always cheered.
The 17-year-old wasted little time showing that he ranked among the draft's biggest steals. He struck out 48 batters in 23 1/3 innings for Rookie-level Bluefield. He did it with a classic power repertoire - 97 mph fastball, sharp slider and changeup.
Erbe has been sensational for Delmarva as well with a 4-4 record and a 2.34 ERA. With 73 strikeouts against 17 walks in 61 2/3 innings, he continues to show the combination of power and precision found in the best pitching prospects. In his four outings before a rough start on Saturday, he'd allowed one run and struck out 28 in 20 innings.
If he learns the optimal moment to drop in a changeup, "it's not going to be really very fair to the hitters," Stockstill said.
Erbe has surpassed all expectations, but ahead of him lie potential injuries and command problems. Most pitching prospects never make it through. The Orioles are being as cautious as possible with this precious arm. Erbe has a smooth delivery that requires little correction.
"We're just going to keep him under a tight lid," Stockstill said. "You're not going to see him go seven, eight, nine innings."
Even in his best outings the season, Erbe has left after the fifth inning. That's likely to change next year when he moves up a level or two.
The Bowie Baysox begin a seven-game homestand tomorrow night with a doubleheader against Minnesota Twins affiliate New Britain. General admission is $1.