Orioles manager Buck Showalter pores over the club's minor league reports every day, looking to find any morsel of information that might help him evaluate the farm system. One recent report from Double-A Bowie, on a recent outing by reliever Mychal Givens, piqued his growing curiosity in the 25-year-old right-hander.
Bowie pitching coach Alan Mills described Givens' outing with superhuman comparisons.
“He said Bruce Banner started the inning, and The Incredible Hulk showed up once somebody got on base,” Showalter said with a chuckle. “And I knew exactly what he was talking about.”
Mills said that was the best way to describe Givens on that night, when the reliever was able to elevate his game under pressure, his fastball going from 92 mph to 98 mph.
“He was able to turn it up a notch,” said Mills, himself a former Orioles reliever. “You always hear about people going to another gear or hitting another level, and that happened in that particular outing. I remember him taking it to a whole different level. The guy who entered the inning and the guy who finished the inning was a different guy.
“I was just putting it in the simplest form. He's a heck of a talent. … I already miss him, but hopefully, I won't see him anymore this year.”
Givens, the Orioles' second-round draft pick in 2009, was a surprise addition to the big league club when the team promoted him from Bowie on Saturday. Though he warmed up during each of the next two games against the Toronto Blue Jays, he has yet to pitch in a game.
When he makes his major league debut for the Orioles, who open a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox tonight, he will be the first member of the organization's ill-fated 2009 draft class to play in the majors.
It has been a long journey for Givens, who was drafted as a shortstop but converted to a pitcher after the 2012 season. The switch has provided Givens — who throws a mid-90s fastball from an unconventional low angle that ranges from three-quarters to sidearm — a rare second opportunity to get to the major leagues, one he likely never would have received as a position player.
“I have confidence I could have done it either way and gotten to the big leagues,” Givens said. “Whatever it took me to get me here. As a position player, I just wasn't consistent. I was always streaky. It just wasn't made to be. Now as a pitcher, it's given me new life, and I've been able to run with it.”
After three full seasons as a position player, Givens couldn't advance past Low-A Delmarva. A thumb injury that required surgery slowed his progress, and he didn't show enough offensively to be considered a serious big league prospect.
“I think he had to fail,” Showalter said. “I think we finally got his attention. He's committed fully. The arm slot is a little different. The velocity is a little different with his arm slot. And his ability to throw other pitches besides the fastball helps him defend himself.”
After the 2012 season, Orioles player development director Brian Graham had a one-on-one meeting with Givens about his future.
“I remember sitting down with him and I presented it to him in a positive way and told him, ‘Mychal, I really believe, honestly and truly, that you can be a big league pitcher,'” Graham said. “In my mind, I saw a guy who might have a chance as a pitcher and, in my mind, I knew he wasn't going to be a major league position player.”
Givens' promotion from Double-A was a surprise, but Showalter said he is working with a 36-man pitching staff, and those who pitch well at Triple-A and Double-A are always considered when the big league club needs an extra arm.
The Orioles needed a bullpen arm Saturday, and Givens was fresh; he had had two days' rest, a factor that played a role in his promotion. Givens had the numbers — he posted a 1.60 ERA with 12 saves and had 54 strikeouts in 391/3 innings while holding opponents to a .199 batting average — and showed he could use his changeup and slider to complement his fastball. Most important for the Orioles, he could give the bullpen some length; 17 of his 23 outings at Bowie were for multiple innings.
Showalter has been one of Givens' most vocal advocates. He invited him to minicamp in January to get a closer look and had him pitch in major league spring training games. He's enamored of his arm angle and the velocity it produces. In Showalter's eyes, Givens was going to get his opportunity at some point this season, so why not now?
“I think it's more of a curiosity because it's played really well there” in Bowie, Showalter said. “When the lights go on, some guys go to another level. … Anybody who says they know how it's going to play [doesn't know]. But there's only one way to find out.
“Well, how are you going to find out? If you're scared, you need to stay on the porch.”
How long Givens stays with the Orioles remains to be seen, especially given how Showalter shuffles his players with options remaining to keep his bullpen fresh.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Givens' success as a pitcher is that few thought his unconventional delivery would get him to the majors. Though he was a successful pitcher in high school — as a senior, he was throwing as hard as 97 mph into the sixth inning of his school's Florida state semifinal — his quirky delivery threw scouts off.
“I know a lot of guys said I was going to break down, and I heard that from a lot of scouts,” Givens said. “They didn't think I'd be able to pitch at the next level. During the draft process, they were really iffy with me as a pitcher, versus being a position player. At the same time, that's my arm slot from shortstop, so it wasn't a big, high change from pitcher. It's always been there. The Orioles, they were the team that took a chance on me.”
Although the Orioles wanted to test Givens as a shortstop first, Graham remembers Joe Jordan, the Orioles' scouting director when Givens was drafted in 2009, telling him not to dismiss the idea of making Givens a pitcher down the road.
“Major league teams do not draft low-three-quarters, sidearm high school pitchers,” Graham said. “Guys who throw low three-quarters, sidearm bullpen guys, and come out of college and have success will have opportunities. But out of high school, you draft the good bodies and the good arms and good deliveries. So timing with us was important. When he was [a position player] and probably not having the success he wanted to and we made the suggestion, he was a lot more understanding than maybe he'd be two years earlier.”
Graham said Givens is still very much a work in progress. This is just his third full season back on the mound. Continuing to pitch multiple-inning appearances is important as he continues to find ways to work hitters, develop his pitches and build arm strength. Givens said building that arm strength was the biggest challenge of his transition.
“He's definitely still raw, but he has all the variables that good pitchers have,” Graham said. “He certainly has the arm strength, life [on his pitches], athleticism. He has the qualities you look for in a good pitcher, and he has the special ability to throw from the arm angle he does at that velocity.”
The Orioles also would like to see Givens improve the beginning of his outings, as Mills referenced in his Bruce Banner-Hulk comparison.
“That's a part of the development process,” Graham said. “We've seen a guy who, when he enters the game, hasn't been at the same intensity level as when guys get on base. Part of his development is going to be, especially at the major league level, that first hitter is so important. You've got to go after that first hitter like you do any other hitters with runners in scoring position.”
Said Showalter: “We need the Hulk to be there from the first pitch.”