SARASOTA, FLA. — It can be hard to find a spot on the top step of the Orioles dugout at this crowded stage of spring training, with over a dozen coaches and scores of reserves all vying for a view of the action during games.
A pair of pitching prospects with similar arsenals have had front-row seats to what they hope will be their futures at Ed Smith Stadium, watching veteran left-handers Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone.
Bespectacled nonroster left-handers Zac Lowther and Alex Wells both were All-Stars at Double-A Bowie last year despite fastballs that don’t often bump past 90 mph. For a long time, they didn’t have anyone but each other to look at in the Orioles organization as an example of how to make that work in the big leagues. They do now.
“It’s good to see that you don’t have to throw through the sound barrier to pitch in the big leagues,” said Wells, who turned 23 on Thursday but hasn’t pitched in spring training because of an oblique injury. “You go out there and command all your pitches in big spots and you’re going to have success.”
For LeBlanc and Milone, signed to minor league contracts but invited to camp to compete for a spot in the Orioles’ big league rotation, that’s been how they’ve pitched in the majors for over a decade.
LeBlanc, who pitched Sunday for the Orioles, has a career 4.46 ERA in 234 games with a 1.34 WHIP, and did it using a variety of pitches off an 86.3 mph fastball that was among the slowest in baseball in 2019. Milone, who allowed one hit and struck out three in two scoreless innings in Thursday’s 13-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, and whose 4.47 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 174 career games is eerily similar to LeBlanc’s, used far more of his fastball at an 87.1 mph average in 2019, but mixes his pitches well and got similar results.
Seeing how that approach has worked at the major league level is encouraging for the Orioles’ two young left-handers. Lowther, also 23, has a career 2.66 ERA with a 1.02 WHIP in three seasons and was the organization’s No. 12 prospect this offseason, according to Baseball America. He’s done it all with a fastball in the 88-91 mph range that hitters can’t pick up well, plus a changeup and curveball.
Wells, who signed out of Australia as a teenager, remains in that same fastball velocity range with precise command in the strike zone. In four minor league seasons, he has a 2.82 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP, though Lowther has the edge in strikeout rate.
It’s the archetype of a pitcher who needs to prove it at every level, and Lowther and Wells both know it. They’ll be challenged with a livelier baseball and more experienced hitters at Triple-A Norfolk in 2020, and know the level of precision required to be successful in the majors is even higher.
That’s why watching LeBlanc and Milone prepare has been a boon for them.
“I think that with their experience in the league and how they carry themselves, being around them day to day is something that’s very surreal,” Lowther said. “You get to see how they work, how they go about their business, and how easy it is for them to recognize if something’s off or how to fix it within a pitch, or one throw playing catch. Just seeing how they analyze everything, and still are able to really enjoy the little things in baseball and day-to-day life.”
While the two prospects are close, their personality differences mean they’ve gone about learning in different ways. Lowther says he has no problem asking them questions, and says he’s gotten plenty of good feedback from the veterans. It’s more conversational than instructional, he said, and they dig into what he does and why.
Wells, however, is more timid. He sees himself as far down the pecking order from the major league rotation hopefuls.
“I don’t really want to bother them, because they’re trying to make the team and stuff like that,” Wells said. “I just don’t want to get in their way. Being a young guy, sometimes it can be a bit nerve-wracking going up to a guy like that.”
Instead, Wells has learned more by observing. Both also have a homegrown example in All-Star left-hander John Means as well.
“It was good to see Wade throw,” Wells said. “Being a left-hander, being pretty similar in the way we throw, just the same warmup, being a veteran guy and seeing how he goes about it — it was good to see. You can definitely learn a lot from that, especially watching Wade and when Tommy Milone throws.”
They don’t need it, but they can also learn from how unapologetic someone like LeBlanc is about who he is and how he pitches. When asked after his first start about making an impression, LeBlanc said he’s 35 years old and there shouldn’t be any doubt about who he is or what he can do.
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Finesse left-handers always tend to have that “here it is, now hit it” mentality. Wells has never sought more velocity, instead focusing on his durability, command and secondary pitches. Both have plenty of examples of how to make that mentality work in the majors.
“I like to learn from them and not go out there and possibly make a mistake I don’t need to make,” Lowther said. “Watching them, Wade, they’ve all been there. They’ve had success at the highest level. So if I’m going to learn from someone, I’m going to learn from someone who has been there and had success.
“Seeing that is something that is going to help me at the next level."