After passing David Ortiz test, Orioles' self-made reliever Donnie Hart proving he belongs

Donnie Hart, the left-handed reliever du jour in the Orioles' bullpen, had a unique audience to share his story with in late August. It was with the person who oversaw his quick climb to the majors but can still find cause to admire it.

Twice recently, thanks to a temporary coaching shuffle, Orioles farm director Brian Graham has served as the bullpen coach. The first time, he sat beside Hart in the bullpen and heard in detail all the steps Hart  took to go from an afterthought coming out of spring training in 2014 to a necessary cog in one of the game's best bullpens.


"Donnie's desire, Donnie's character, Donnie's work ethic is the reason why Donnie is where he is right now in the big leagues," Graham said. "Donnie made this happen for himself. He came into the organization with an arm angle significantly higher than it is now. He looked around, and realized on his own that if he could drop down, it might really help him pitch in the big leagues. … It puts him in a completely different league. It creates a completely different opportunity for him because of his arm angle."

So far, that opportunity has already given him some of baseball's hardest tasks. In completing them, Hart has been the left-handed relief asset the Orioles have long hoped to find in the post-Brian Matusz era. His biggest test came Tuesday against Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who popped out with two on and one out in Hart's only contribution to 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.


Orioles manager Buck Showalter, seemingly for the entire second half of the season, has said the best left-handed relievers are the ones you develop on your own. He's trying to find out if Hart is that for the Orioles both now and going forward, and is getting a good return. In 15 appearances spanning 13 innings, Hart hasn't been charged with an earned run, allowing nine hits and four walks with seven strikeouts while allowing four of the 12 runners he's inherited to score.

Hart, who turned 26 on Sept. 6, knows his circumstances. Everything that makes him work at this level, is everything that means he shouldn't traditionally be at it.

"I'm short, I don't throw hard and I throw side-arm, left-handed," he said. The first two parts, and the last, have always been true. Tracing the third, Hart's arm action, from his days at Texas State to the majors is a study in everything else that Graham believes got him this far.

Hart, a first baseman and pitcher in college, had no future past that level at either position until he dropped down to make a sidearm throw from first base to second as a senior. He tried it on the mound, caught the Orioles' eye, and was worthy of a pick in the 27th round. But Hart quickly learned where he stood.

After his first spring training in 2014, Hart went unassigned to a full-season roster — very rare for a college player — and remained in extended spring training. Of the 11 pitchers who broke camp with Class-A Delmarva that spring, four are already out of baseball, including three of the seven relievers. All were chosen that year over Hart. The game tells everyone where they stand at one point or another. Hart had to choose whether he was willing to listen at a young age.

"It was just kind of a numbers deal," Hart said. "They had their prospects above me. I did what I had to do to try to get out of extended. I unfortunately didn't. As soon as extended was over, they sent me to Low-A, but those three months when you're down there doing everything you can to get out of there and you can't get out of there, you kind of sit there and wonder what you're doing."

That was just one of the stages where Graham seemed impressed with Hart's self-awareness. He heard at the time from minor league pitching coach Justin Lord that Hart was impressing the staff in Sarasota, but those sessions in the bullpen with Graham this week outlined how he got past that level — and every other level the Orioles set out for him.

"We talked extensively about the different things he did at Extended, and in Delmarva, then getting the promotion from Delmarva to Frederick, then Frederick to Double-A," Graham said.

"What stood out was the fact that he was so self aware. He realized, and understood that he had to make adjustments to get to the next level, which was just High-A ball. Then make adjustments to get to the next level, which was Double-A. Donnie Hart was aware. He knew that."

Over time, his arm slot dropped even lower. His ERA went down with it. He posted a combined 1.49 ERA over three stops in 2015, but when right-handers were giving him trouble earlier this year, he called a man who could solve his problems: veteran reliever Darren O'Day.

"He's called me on the phone asking me how I pitch lefties, because he's trying to pitch righties similarly — and he's learned all new pitches in two years," O'Day said. "And learned how to control, learned how to repeat that delivery against the best hitters in the world."

Whether for a right-handed sidearm pitcher or a lefty, the mentality is the same, he said. O'Day has now dispensed such knowledge to Hart for parts of three seasons.


"You kind of have to claim all parts of the zone," O'Day said. "If you're throwing 88 [mph] — the speed that guys want to hit — then you have to use all quadrants of the zone: up, down, in and out. So you want to get him out down and away, then you have to make sure that's available by pitching up-and-in. if you let him just keep drifting over. … Us sidearm guys, we like to get guys out down in the zone. Hitters know that , and they'll start diving down there. You have to get a pitch in. We talked about his thought process. He has a good idea. He's a smart guy. He knows what to do."

That phone call was about two weeks before the Double-A All-Star break, when Hart's surface statistics belied the fact that righties were having their way with him.

"I hit a little rough patch," Hart said. "I couldn't get righties to ground out anymore, and I couldn't get them off my changeup, and I was wanting to all year to be able to throw a backdoor slider. So I called him [O'Day], talked to him and asked him about when he throws it, what kind of hitters he throws it to, and when the best time to throw it is. We had a conversation while he was driving up here to the ballpark, and I think it was maybe but two weeks later that I was up here as his teammate. It's great."

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