All across baseball, the reputation of the California League as a hitter's paradise precedes it. The thin air at some of the High-A desert ballparks there makes balls carry, inflating batters' stats and deflating pitchers' egos alike.
That three of the prospects the Orioles acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a trade for for All-Star shortstop Manny Machado — pitchers Dean Kremer and Zach Pop, plus infielder Rylan Bannon — have performed well there adds a promising dimension to their already impressive seasons.
"You know that the ball carries a lot there, so if you find that you have success there, you feel like you can do it anywhere," Kremer said.
Kremer, 22, was in his second season at High-A Rancho Cucamonga this year when he began to hit his stride. He was a swingman in 2017, but worked with the Dodgers' coaches and analytics staff to transform his arsenal ahead of this season. The result was a 3.30 ERA in 79 innings for the Quakes, with 114 strikeouts, 26 walks and a 1.18 WHIP before he was promoted to Double-A Tulsa. He struck out 11 batters in seven shutout innings during his only start there.
The Dodgers' staff helped him transition from a two-seam fastball to a four-seam fastball, and he added a curveball in the process.
"I did a lot of work early in the season, in spring training, with the staff over there with the Dodgers," he said. "They really helped me kind of put the pieces together from what I was missing last year and helped me get back on track. ... Don't throw the two-seam anymore. I pretty much stick to four-seam, curveball, then the slider and changeup. My go-to would definitely be my curveball. I try to play everything off my fastball."
He credited his success in the California League, where the lowest-scoring team averages 4.2 runs per game, to the Dodgers' development.
Three Orioles prospects, including Yusniel Díaz, reported to Double-A Bowie on Thursday excited to continue their strong seasons after they were traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers for All-Star shortstop Manny Machado.
"They do an A-plus job developing pitchers and helping guys out, attacking their strengths and helping them realize what they are," he said
Both he and Pop, who reported to Double-A Bowie on Thursday, are testaments to that. The Dodgers took Pop last summer in the seventh round out of Kentucky and got him on a consistent routine, which improved some of the command problems he had earlier in his career.
"Just control, getting the work that I needed," Pop said. "In college, I didn't really pitch that much. I had some issues with some control, and as I started to pitch here and get regular work, I was just able to spot up. Most of the time, if you can spot up a fastball like that, you're going to have some success."
As a sinker-slider reliever — albeit one whose fastball is routinely 94 to 97 mph and topped out at 99 mph this year, complemented by his tight high-80s slider — his assignments are more straightforward than Kremer's as a starter. He has handled them well. After posting a 2.20 ERA in Low-A Great Lakes earlier in the season, he allowed one run in 27 innings in the California League, striking out 23 batters and walking six.
"I think for me, it's just going up there and competing every day against myself and not really focusing too much on the opponent," Pop said. "I know I have some pretty good pitches, and try not to worry too much about what they do, and more so focus on what I do and make them hit my best pitch. If they do that, you tip your cap. That's what it was for me. Baseball is a hard game. The hitters are going to fail more than the pitchers are, especially if you make your pitches. That's the way I look at it."
The two newest Orioles pitchers were quite complementary of each other, too.
"He's a competitor," Pop said of Kremer. "That's one thing I love seeing out there with him. He goes out there and gives it his all every time. He does his due diligence before the game, in his week leading up, so he's mentally prepared and physically prepared for the outing. When he goes out, he's got great stuff, and he shoves. He's a great teammate, and a really good guy to be in the clubhouse with."
Kremer said Pop’s standout feature is his heavy fastball.
"He can get up to the upper 90s," Kremer said. "He's got a lot of sink on his ball. It's definitely hard for hitters to adjust to, and then he's got a slider to back things up with."
Although two of the more batter-friendly parks in the California League, Bakersfield and High Desert’s, were abandoned after 2016, there's still plenty of evidence that hitting on that circuit is unlike anywhere else.
Bannon, who will report to Bowie on Friday, hit .296 with 20 home runs and 16 doubles in the league’s friendly environs, and most of his success came at home, with a 1.157 OPS and 27 of his 43 extra-base hits recorded there, compared to a .768 OPS on the road. Rancho Cucamonga's park is among the most hitter friendly in the league, according to Baseball America, but the hitting environment at the Orioles' High-A affiliate in Frederick is just as conducive.
The pitchers who arrived in Bowie before Bannon said there was nothing inflated about his season for the Quakes.
"He was doing something exceptional down there, " Pop said. "We'd call him Brian Dozier and stuff like that, but Bannon was a special player. He's got a really good swing."
"Mini Barry Bonds, mini everything," Kremer said. "He just flat-out hits. He's an unbelievable hitter. Aggressive, but at the same time, patient. He walks a lot, hits for singles, hits for average, hits for power. He does it all. He plays well with the glove as well."