There are two kinds of spring training outings for pitchers: the kind that goes off without a hitch and shows the pitcher is ready, and the kind that goes badly but offers something to build on in hopes that the total package will come together.
In seeing them, they’re pretty easy to distinguish. And so, too, is the degree to which the optimism pulled from a tough start is actually warranted.
All that has changed this spring, where media access is such that many spring training games are going uncovered by the media, and a lack of broadcasts to this point by the Orioles-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network has eliminated the ability for anyone not in Florida to see the team play unless their opponent is broadcasting the game, thus making it available on MLB.TV.
Seeing or not seeing spring training games doesn’t do much to change the feeling that this team isn’t going to be very good in 2021. But it does remove the ability to distinguish which, if any, potential members of the team can make them better, and the two most recent starts of former All-Star right-handers Matt Harvey and Félix Hernández illuminate those challenges.
Harvey, the former New York Mets star, came to the Orioles after he discovered how data and progressive instruction methods might resurrect his career and believed pitching coach Chris Holt and staff could give him more of that.
Hernández, who was going to pitch for the Atlanta Braves in 2020 before opting out of the season, was coming off a dominant decade with the Seattle Mariners and hoping to hang on with the Orioles to bolster his Hall of Fame resume.
Their low-cost additions as minor league free agents before spring training began represented the Orioles’ attempt to stock their potential starting pitching ranks to prepare for a massive increase in workload throughout a full season.
Neither has pitched well in the majors for years, but it stood to reason that perhaps with a long leash and the opportunity to pitch without looking over their shoulder, there was a chance to reclaim a little bit of their magic.
Spring training outings wouldn’t decide whether that would happen, but good ones would certainly build some promise. And to hear the Orioles and Harvey talk about his four-inning start Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, it certainly falls under that category.
He struck out four without a walk and allowed two runs on five hits, including a home run to rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes in the first inning.
Harvey said that physically, it was a “huge step in the right direction” regarding his delivery, as he didn’t have to think about that and could instead focus on attacking the strike zone and executing pitches. He said using his sinker on the hands to right-handed hitters opened up his slider away and led to some strikeouts, a plan they’d been working on all week.
He said it was “definitely better than the first start,” one in which the Toronto Blue Jays waited on his fastball and hit him around a bit as Harvey’s secondary pitches didn’t get them off the barrel or really fool anyone.
This start, manager Brandon Hyde said, was “a really good outing.” He thought Harvey “threw the ball great.”
On the Orioles’ radio broadcast, the only transmission of the game to those not present, analyst Brian Roberts noted that Harvey’s sinker was effective early but that he was struggling to get Pirates hitters to chase his secondary pitches. The broadcast booth, using the typically accurate scoreboard velocity readings for Harvey, had him consistently in the 92-94 mph range with his fastballs.
Hyde, though, said both Monday and Tuesday that Harvey was 94-95 mph with “a lot of 95s” and was up to 96 mph. There’s a difference between operating in those velocity bands, but without the ability to see it or verify otherwise, it’s a challenge to know for sure.
It does sound like there was progress from one start to the next, but it’s hard to say whether that’s the kind of strides the Orioles would have expected him to make to be ready to be in their Opening Day rotation.
On the other hand, there’s less ambiguity about Hernández’s spring, one that was cut short Tuesday by elbow soreness after just one inning against the Tampa Bay Rays.
It was a difference in Hernández’s demeanor that made Hyde check on him after the right-hander’s two-strikeout first inning. But it was a difference in how he got those strikeouts that piqued interest here.
Seeing Hernández’s first start down in Sarasota, Florida, and his second on the Pirates’ broadcast last week, it seemed like his ability to miss bats might be a problem with his mid-80s fastball not forcing hitters to gear up and thus allowing them to hang back on his breaking balls and changeup.
He’d given up five earned runs on six hits with three strikeouts and a pair of walks in five innings over two starts before Tuesday, when he got two swinging strikeouts and looked to have a better feel for how to miss bats with those secondary pitches before he was lifted from the game.
Given the baseline of performance Hernández had set, it was disappointing to see him leave before watching how his new arsenal would play against a Rays lineup full of regulars with the wind blowing out. But having seen every outing to that point, it was much clearer what he’d need to execute and what would need to improve to feel confident that he’d be able to pitch well for the Orioles once the season begins in April.
His elbow soreness puts whether that could happen in doubt. Harvey, on the other hand, seems to be building to such a rotation role, just as the Orioles hoped. There’s just no saying whether it will be any good once he’s in.
That’s why the concept of evaluating the team under these spring training circumstances seemed to stump Hyde on Tuesday. Asked what he would look at statistically or otherwise to try and get a sense of how a player performed in a given game or how his spring is going, Hyde couldn’t really think of anything.
“I think it’s very, very challenging, if you’re not here, to evaluate,” he said.