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How Dillon Tate, the 2015 draft’s top arm, is finally reaching his potential in the Orioles bullpen

Dillon Tate isn’t the kind of sneakerhead who looks to make a statement with his kicks, though he’s certainly particular about them.

He prefers a simple silhouette, black or white numbers that can fit with any outfit, like the pair of Saint Laurent Andy sneakers that were his go-to in spring training. They were literally and figuratively low-profile, with stamped gold letters on an all-white leather shoe.

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Such simplicity belies the thought that goes into it. And for a pitcher who is rather single-minded about self-improvement and finding his best in the Orioles bullpen, that’s no coincidence.

“I would think there’s a correlation between all of them,” Tate said, “because how you do one thing is how you do everything.”

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In the climb to college stardom that made him the top pitcher selected in the 2015 MLB draft, and the disjointed path to get him to the big leagues, that unswerving nature has been behind most of the successes and struggles that brought Tate to the Orioles bullpen.

From the ground up

Unburdened by expectations and unwavering in how he wanted to do it, Tate eventually got to the station of his baseball life he’s at now: poised for a bigger role in the Orioles bullpen as 2021 continues.

In a group that’s much-improved over the past few years, Tate stands alone in being the one Orioles reliever clearly on the rise.

“His potential is phenomenal,” teammate Cole Sulser said. “It’s really impressive stuff, and watching him work, he’s a very dedicated thoughtful, methodical person. He really tries to look from the ground floor up about where he can make improvements, how can he continue making his game better, and I think he’s just going to continue to get better and better.”

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Tate, too, acknowledges his pitching prowess was ground-up — literally. Before he picked up a baseball, he was a thrower, chucking dirt clods against a cinder block wall by his house when he was 5 years old.

There wasn’t a ton for college recruiters to latch onto by the time he reached that stage, though. The coach where he ended up, Cal-Santa Barbara’s Andrew Checketts, said there was a live arm in the upper-80s to dream on but questions about the rest of his pitches.

“It was basically just projection,” he said. “I don’t know how fast it’s going to happen for him, but the upside is really high.”

The latter part proved correct, eventually. Tate struggled as a freshman but was the team’s closer as a sophomore, recording a 1.45 ERA while striking out 46 in 43 ⅓ innings. That summer with the US Collegiate National Team, he dominated again, establishing himself as one of the top arms of the 2015 draft class.

Tate was throwing mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball and had by then honed a tight, hard breaking ball. The baseball world wanted to see him as a starter, but the Gauchos rotation was set at that point. It wasn’t until just before the season began that a starter was injured and Tate took his place.

Tate made 14 starts and struck out 111 in 103 ⅓ innings with a 2.26 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP that year, and was the top pitcher on many teams’ draft boards. The Texas Rangers took him fourth overall with a $4.2 million signing bonus as the first pitcher selected that year.

Being selected so high in the draft, even in a sport where immediate gratification for such selections doesn’t exist, brings pressure. Fans expect a quick reward for having endured a losing season the year before. Clubs expect a top talent to provide that reward quickly. And sometimes, players internalize that.

Tate insists he never did, and contrarily believes being a high pick was good for him because of the opportunities such an investment in a player opens for him.

It’s always been a him-versus-him thing, not living up to anyone’s expectations.

“This is my right arm,” he said. “The ball is connected to my brain at the end of the day, and nobody else’s. So I’m running the show.”

Learning the hard way

His steadfast belief in that way of thinking, naturally, made for a difficult transition. He butted heads with pitching coaches and coordinators when he got into the Rangers organization as he tried to stick with what got him there.

Tate said he had perfected a routine based heavily around the weight room, and did so on a once-a-week pitching schedule that college provides. He’s naturally slender, he said, and he wanted to add muscle that helped his velocity. He did that in college and thought he could continue it as a pro.

“I’m trying to do the same thing once I move on to the next step and just repeat the same process, but it’s not exactly the same thing,” Tate said, noting that just led to injuries in pro ball. “So, I had to learn the hard way.”

He also bucked a little at changes to his delivery. Checketts described the pitcher they sent to pro ball as having some funk with intensity and effort in his delivery.

“That was part of what made him good,” Checketts said. “He had a lot of body parts coming at you and it was tough to see.”

Said Tate: “In my mind, it was, ‘OK, essentially you bought a product and now you want to start changing the product that you paid for.’ That’s not really comfortable for the individual, and I don’t feel that I can produce the same way that you’re looking for me to produce when you’re trying to change these things. At the time, I just wasn’t able to figure out the pieces that I needed to figure out to get the results that I needed to show them.”

He spent about a year in Texas’ farm system before they traded him to the New York Yankees for Carlos Beltran in August 2016. He knows a year in pro ball had “definitely established what I was doing wasn’t working.”

Early in the 2017 season, he found a mechanical cue that kept his hands breaking in-sync with his lift leg and began to find success. Tate pitched well for two years in the Yankees system before he was the top piece the Orioles brought back in a trade that sent star closer Zack Britton to New York in July 2018.

It was another adjustment, but one Tate eventually welcomed. In the fall of 2018, the Orioles brought Chris Holt in as their minor league pitching coordinator. They landed on the same wavelength in a desire to always be on the attack, something Tate felt he couldn’t do as a starter.

Early in 2019 at Double-A Bowie, he asked to move to the bullpen. A few months later, he was in the big leagues.

Tate was inconsistent at the end of 2019, but strong when he returned from a bruised arm suffered on a comebacker during summer camp in the shortened 2020 season. He allowed 14 base runners in 16 ⅔ innings last summer, and is on a similar pace with a 2.45 ERA with a 0.82 WHIP in 7 ⅓ innings so far in 2021.

Finding his best self

Tate finding his best self doesn’t surprise many people. The talent has always been there. So, too, has the quiet, assured desire to improve, and the Orioles are getting the best of him by letting him be himself.

He’s quiet by nature, but said the purpose of staying in his “little lane” is to “get to my best self as efficiently as possible.”

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“By just staying down in the corner, just doing my thing, I’m figuring out all the pieces that I need to get me where it is that I’m trying to go,” he said. “So, I’m just picking up one piece at a time, discarding things if I feel like they aren’t necessarily helping me. That’s the best way that I could possibly describe me as a pitcher, but I would say that’s outside of the mound.”

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Shorstop Richie Martin, who Tate has grown close with and lived with in spring training this year, said the thoughtful, focused player he is around the ballpark and at home translates well into him being a successful pitcher.

“I think he does a good job of channeling his energy, and when I say he’s smart, I don’t mean he’s super analytical,” Martin said. “But he’s smart with the way he handles himself, his body, the way he trains — just the way he goes about it. It all translates pretty well.”

All that changes when Tate gets on the mound. He believes the only way to get better is to face the best hitters he can, and by ranking in the 97th percentile in weak contact and making quick work of hitters this season, manager Brandon Hyde will soon grow comfortable giving Tate the kind of “confrontation” on the mound that his personality doesn’t seem to welcome but the pitcher in him craves.

“Confrontation, I think in this sense, is the biggest, baddest guy on their team — whoever that is in their lineup,” Tate said. “If there’s six of them in the lineup, I want to face all six. That’s the only way that I’m going to really advance my game, is getting experience at this level facing the best guys and then storing the information and figuring out what to do with it to take the next step.”

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