Tanner Scott seems to remember the details of his Orioles debut, which occurred a year ago Thursday, like it was yesterday.
He can’t forget his first big league mistake, when he was slow to cover first base on a potential double-play ball that could have ended his debut with a clean inning.
Instead, Scott allowed two runs in that eighth inning in a 9-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards. He walked two, struck out one on a slider he buried in the dirt, and allowed a two-run double to Dustin Pedroia after he failed to cover first base.
“I wish it went a little better,” Scott said this week. “I gave up what, two runs? Should have covered first. I wanted a little better outing, but it’s crazy to think that it was a year ago. I feel more confident on the mound now than I did then, especially the first time in the big leagues. You’re just trying to keep the adrenaline down and also play with it. Now it’s easier to go out there.”
That debut showed the Orioles the exemplary tools that Scott has displayed in his relief outings in the year since, a one-of-a-kind left arm with a top-notch fastball and a slider that can be a tremendous swing-and-miss pitch. But while Scott has gained another year’s worth of experience, and most of it at the major league level, he’s still trying to find his way.
“You’re still facing big league hitters who hit anything,” Scott said. “They hit velo. But they don’t hit where you want to put pitches. That’s the biggest difference. This year I have a slider that’s been pretty well for me.”
At times, Scott’s results haven’t been great, but the lessons he’s received — just like the ones he learned in his debut a year ago — have been valuable to his growth.
“He’s better this year than he was last year,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “If you look at it, every year with Tanner, he has gotten a little better this year. I challenge him a lot. He’s a guy you can take into the weight room and test out. He could dunk a basketball probably flat-footed. He’ll jump on high boxes. He’ll sprint. He’ll leg lift. Whatever. He’s a really good athlete, but it hasn’t always parlayed into pitching. I challenge him a lot. ‘With all you do and all the mechanical stuff, you get out there and pitch. Be a baseball player. Go compete. Get lost in the competition.’ ”
There’s no question the Orioles believe the 24-year-old Scott is still a major piece of the club’s bullpen of the future, but his 5.59 ERA is an indication of his inconsistency in his first extended big league experience this season.
“You try to look at the positive things — his strikeout rate is tremendous,” reliever Mychal Givens said of Scott’s strikeout rate of 31.8 percent, which ranked 17th among American League relievers with 45 innings or more entering Thursday. “You just have to now mold that into a whole, complete bullpen guy, and I think he's becoming a whole, complete bullpen guy. He's going out and learning how to pitch, learning what to expect, what are his strengths up here, stuff like that. I think he's getting better and maturing as a person. It's been good to see what he's become.”
Scott’s slider is the main reason he’s struck out nearly one of every three batters he’s faced this season. He’s drawing a 55.8 percent whiff rate on the pitch, 58 of his 69 strikeouts have come on the slider, and opponents are hitting just .144 against it. By comparison, opponents are hitting .340 off Scott’s fastball, which averages 97.1 mph.
“The slider’s gotten better,” Showalter said. “The stretches of ineffectiveness have been shorter. I think he’s come to grips that he’s not always going to sit out there and throw 98 by somebody. He understands and he has gotten over the, not intimidation or ego or that, [but knowing] it’s just, OK, it’s part of being up here, but if I can make them honor the slider, the fastball really plays in because of the velocity. We’re trying to make his fastball a little more deceptive. There’s something we’ve tried with his hands … the way he pushes makes for an inconsistent delivery.”
Scott was recalled and optioned three times before joining the big league bullpen for good in mid-June after left-hander Richard Bleier’s season-ending lat injury. Before that, Scott allowed just one earned run over 12 1/3 innings at Triple-A Norfolk.
When Scott has struggled, it’s mainly because of command. Over his first 37 big league outings this season, Scott allowed multiple runs in nine, and of those nine, he surrendered multiple walks in seven. Scott said he’s seen the difference when he’s able to execute both of his pitches.
“There’s been times when I haven’t had it and it shows the struggles,” Scott said. “When it’s on, it’s where I want it to me. I’m confident with it. When I can throw it for strikes, for strike one, it’s easier. It throws the hitters off. I can throw a fastball, then flip one of those in for a strike, and they’re like, ‘OK he can throw a strike breaking ball.’ You put that in the back of their head and you can go from there. If you don’t have that, it’s a day you have to grind on the mound. It [stinks], but it’s a game. You learn about it.”
When the Orioles drafted Scott four years ago, he was a fastball-changeup pitcher, but his development focused on establishing his slider. Before last year’s late-season call-up, the Orioles used him as a starter at Double-A Bowie so he could work his way through a lineup with three-inning outings and develop his confidence in throwing his slider in any count and situation.
He did well in that role, but at the major league level, he’s struggled in multiple-inning relief outings, in part because he’s at times struggled to put away right-handed hitters, who are batting .300 against him (compared with .255 against lefties). He’s done much better recently in shorter outings, allowing three earned runs over his past 12 outings spanning 11 1/3 innings while striking out 15 and walking four.
He’s done all this while watching the Orioles bullpen morph before his eyes. Bleier’s season ended early because of injury. Closer Zach Britton, whose locker was next to Scott and helped mentor him, was traded to the New York Yankees in July, and relievers Brach Brach and Darren O’Day were dealt to the Atlanta Braves at the nonwaiver deadline. That means pitchers like Givens, Scott and Bleier, when he returns next season, are the Orioles’ next wave of late-inning arms.
It’s kind of crazy,” Scott said. “It’s different. …There’s a lot of young guys here now. But going into next year, you just try to come out here and pitch and try to get an established role that way or whatever [my role] needs to be.
“The biggest thing from this year is that I know I can get big league hitters out, but I know it needs to be more consistent. Not so much up down up down. It needs to be get the ball, get him out. Sometimes I haven’t had that ‘get this guy out’ [mentality]. [I allow a quick] hit, that’s what I need to really work on to get effective for next year.”