At every level he climbs to, Orioles left-handed pitching prospect Alex Wells knows he has to prove his brand of pitching will play.
He has to prove his fastball command will make up for its lack of velocity, his big curveball won’t give advanced hitters too much time to react, and filling up the strike zone won’t mean giving too much for opponents to hit.
Thursday’s 2-1 playoff loss for Bowie — in which Wells, 22, struck out three in a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning but yielded the winning run when the man on third stole home — was an emphatic way for him to end a season in which he proved all of that worked at Double-A.
“It’s awesome, knowing I can go out and compete at each level,” Wells said after allowing two runs in seven innings, tying a season high with eight strikeouts, ending his year with a 2.87 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP in 26 starts.
“I’m the type of guy that doesn’t have the velocity to blow it by guys, so I’ve got to go out and pitch with that mentality, knowing that I can pitch at any level that they put me at. I’m going to have the confidence in myself.”
That confidence, Wells said, began in his first full season at Low-A Delmarva in 2017, when he won the Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award for the Orioles organization and learned he can throw any pitch in any count and dictate the pace of the game. Last year at High-A Frederick, he got away from that and became a pitcher who tried to do too much. He said he “didn’t trust what I was capable of doing out there, getting the early-count outs,” and took a step back statistically.
But he rebounded for a standout age-22 season at Bowie, and is getting close to the point where the questions will stop being whether his arsenal can play in the majors but when that look might come.
“The first time I saw him in spring training, it was one of those where you say, ‘Really, this is him?’ ” Bowie pitching coach Kennie Steenstra said. “He’s really slight in nature, and not a big guy or anything, doesn’t really profile. He’s not one of those guys. But the more you watch him, the more you’re impressed with him. It’s just a guy that finds a way.
“He throws strikes consistently, really goes after guys. He’s not scared to throw any pitch in any count. He wants the ball. He’s just one of those guys that has a way of finding weaknesses in hitters, and being able to exploit those weaknesses. He’s done a great job of that all year.”
Thursday’s start in Game 3 of the Eastern League Championship Series showed all of that. Wells’ fastball worked 88-90 mph for most of the day, often down in the zone, though Eastern League MVP Chris Gittens punished one left over the plate with a second-inning home run. Wells rebounded in part thanks to an outfield assist from Ryan McKenna in the second, and on the last batter of that inning, began a run of 18 straight strikes that ran through a four-pitch third inning, a six-pitch fourth and into a 1-2-3 fifth inning.
He mostly used the fastball and curveball the first two times through the lineup, but began mixing in his changeup and even sprinkled in his new slider as the day went along.
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“Obviously, he’s got a good curveball,” Steenstra said. “It’s slow, but he does a good job being able to locate that both for strikes and for put-aways, burying it off the plate, or getting guys to chase off a little bit with it. But the changeup is what has really developed this year. He’s gotten a lot better with that pitch and creating more swings and misses where before he got soft contact with that pitch, and now he’s starting to get misses with it. Just getting that comfort level and being able to do that, and then the fourth pitch.
“He’s been working on a slider all summer, and he was very hesitant at first. Didn’t really want to get into it and he’s had a few games here lately where he’s throwing 10 or 12 of them in an outing instead of one. It’s been good to see him develop that pitch and start to use it a little bit more.”
Adding a pitch in between his fastball and the big breaking ball was something some scouts thought could be the key to Wells’ future. Steenstra said they tried to show him examples of other pitchers who use the pitch who have similar skill sets to Wells'. Still, Wells acknowledges he was “a bit up in arms” about having to add it.
Steenstra said it was meant to be a pitch to jam right-handers with, but he’s used it effectively against lefties some, too. It’s all been part of Wells improving at a level that was his biggest challenge yet, and the whole package meant manager Buck Britton felt comfortable with Wells on the mound in a pivotal game in the Baysox’s season.
“The biggest thing for Wells is the competitor he is,” Britton said. “He doesn’t have the stuff that’s off the charts, but this guy, he competes. And he’s not afraid to attack guys with his fastball, and he’s got a big slow curveball that keeps hitters off-balance and he’s working on a slider as a weapon against left-handed hitters. The way he goes about it, the competitiveness, is what gets Wells where he’s at.”
Wells was never short on that competitiveness, and Double-A hitters gave him his first taste of former major leaguers trying to get back and top prospects who ended up in the majors. Pitching against them made him “hungrier,” he said, and the next time he pitches in a game, Wells will be pitching in the Arizona Fall League to add another level he needs to master on his way to the big leagues.
“Another challenge to go out and face the best prospects in baseball out there,” Wells said. “I’m looking forward to getting out there, the challenge. I can’t wait to go out and pitch. I’m ready, so it’s going to be fun.”