Late last month in the outfield of a nondescript minor league ballpark, a pair of touted Orioles minor league pitchers — 2017 second-round draft pick Zac Lowther and third-rounder Michael Baumann — played catch on the outfield grass
Lowther, a funky 22-year-old lefty who entered Saturday’s start with a 1.23 ERA, has been trying to bring along his changeup. And in the middle of their catch, Baumann — he of the 1.80 ERA — stopped the session in its tracks.
"Hey, this one was good, what'd you do on it?" Baumann, 22, asked him. They identified it, and sure enough, the pitch was an effective one in his next start.
Such moments are common for the Low-A Delmarva rotation, which has been and brings to mind the fabled "cavalry" of Orioles pitching prospects that included Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz from the beginning of this decade.
After a month of pitching together in the South Atlantic League, the crew of Lowther, Baumann, 2017 top pick DL Hall, 2016 second-rounder Matthias Dietz, left-hander Cameron Bishop and 19-year-old sinker-baller Brenan Hanifee are coalescing as a cavalry of their own. And they realize having each other pull from and pull for is part of why.
"Just being able to point some stuff out that I don't feel or see that someone else is seeing, that's the kind of success that we bring to each other in the locker room and helping everyone else out,” Lowther said. “And we're all getting better for that.
"A week ago, Mike was working on his curveball and being able to bounce ideas off Brenan, me, Cam, all trying to develop those same pitches. We're going through the same stuff. It's friendly competition with good friends."
This group didn't come together by accident. The Orioles have found themselves frozen out of the top end of the free-agent pitching market in recent years, and struggled to get top arms to come to Baltimore before Alex Cobb did so this March. As a result, they've invested significant draft capital in restocking their pitching depth.
In 2016, their top three picks and 15 of their top 18 picks were pitchers. Top pick Cody Sedlock has struggled with injury in two seasons at High-A Frederick, but second-rounder Keegan Akin is already at Double-A and sixth-rounder Tobias Myers yielded starting infielder Tim Beckham in a trade. From that class, Dietz and Hanifee are featuring in Delmarva's rotation.
Three of the Orioles' top four picks in the 2017 draft — prep left-hander Hall, Lowther and Baumann — plus the 22-year-old Bishop, who signed for $600,000 as a 26th-round pick also start at Delmarva. Together, the rotation represents a quarter of the organization’s top 24 prospects, according to Baseball America. The on-field result has been a group that has a 2.28 ERA with a 1.087 WHIP through 28 games.
The collection is so deep that Gray Fenter, who is coming off Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery but received a $1 million signing bonus in 2015, is pitching as a piggyback starter out of the bullpen. He'd fit right in with his 2.84 ERA through four games, and got a chance to start Saturday as Lowther nurses a tight oblique.
"I think with the caliber of arms that we have throughout the rotation, it kind of builds like a competition in the staff, which I think increases their ability to do what they do," Shorebirds manager Buck Britton said. "They all have ability. They can all throw three pitches for strikes, whatever it is. They all have the talent. But it's that internal competition that brings out even more out of a pitcher, and I think that's what we're seeing out of these guys. Every day, you want to go out there and be better than the guy before you — and it's translated into some really good things."
Both Britton and pitching coach Justin Lord knew the makings for this existed, especially in spring training as rosters began to come together. But it's something different entirely for that to come through in competitive conditions.
"These guys just continue to progress, and watching them with your daily routines — going through the things they do to get themselves ready," Lord said. "They all are developing. They have professional habits. They're developing professional habits and work ethic and learning what it takes to pitch at this level or levels beyond.
“The competition among all six or seven of those guys in the rotation, it's fun. I think that feeds off each other sometimes. They're all talented. Every one of these pitchers are talented pitchers. But when the lights come on and they're facing live competition and the weather and developments that aren't desirable for baseball, you see these guys take the ball, get on the mound and pitch."
Their influence on one another goes deeper than a pitch grip here or a scouting report there. Britton said the thing that stands out most for the college pitchers, whose success at the level comes as they're building a professional routine, is how they stay under control with runners on base and manage situations at a level far more mature than often seen at Low-A.
"I think the younger players watch how they go about their business and what they look like on the mound. They don't seem to get rattled,” Britton said. “The game doesn't really speed up on them. They have a sense of calming things down. In their head or in their chest, it might be going 1 million miles per hour. But outwardly, it's, 'I've got a runner on second base, a runner on third base, nobody out. How do I get this guy out?’ "
They saw that on April 27 from Hanifee, the 19-year-old with a frame to dream on and a precocious sinker. He loaded the bases with no outs on his first nine pitches, allowed one run to score on a sacrifice fly, then scattered three hits and a walk without allowing a run over the next six innings. Hall, 19, is still building up his innings after a stop-and-start spring training, but has pitched well.
Dietz, 22, is the only pitcher repeating the level this year, and while he's hit 100 mph with his fastball this year, the coaches say he's doing a better job of pulling back on the reins and managing situations than he did a year ago. It says a lot that he, Hall and Hanifee are able to keep pace with such advanced college pitchers.
"I think they have to be convicted in who they are as a pitcher," Lord said. "Every one of those guys possesses something different than the other. If you go out there and try to be someone that you're not, that's where you get in trouble. I think each one of these guys has an understanding of who they are and what type of pitcher they are, and they're sticking to that."
The pitchers seem to delight in how different they are, and the fact that they built the rapport they did as a partial collective at Short-A Aberdeen last year and now this spring in Salisbury has made the success each is having that much more special. They know there are only a handful of jobs at the next level, and that will continue to be true until the major leagues. They won't all be starters forever. Attrition will take care of that. But as long as they can, they want to keep the good feelings and good results from April going.
"We're not just teammates trying to make the next team," Lowther said. "We're friends on and off the field, and I think just the locker room dynamic carries out to the field. I think each one of us wants the other to succeed just as bad as they want to themselves. It's not really, 'I want to beat you out.' We want to help each other move up. We all want to move up together. If he's getting better, I'm getting better, and we follow the chain that way."
Said Baumann: "It's so fun. When you're not pitching, being able to learn from these guys and knowing day in and day out, they're going to go out and compete and put on a show — it's fun to watch and build a relationship with these guys that hopefully you can play with going up. That's the goal, and they make it fun to show up at the field every day and fun to be a part of."