Right-hander Michael Baumann got a late start to the season at High-A Frederick, but wasted little time joining the fun that's swept the pitching staffs in the Orioles' low minors in the season's first month, striking out everyone.
Baumann, the reigning Carolina League Pitcher of the Week, earned that honor Monday for his most recent outing for the Keys in which he struck out 12 in 6 2/3 no-hit innings April 30 against Wilmington. It gave him 34 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings over four starts this year, and his 16.4 strikeouts per nine innings ranks No. 1 among starters in the Orioles minors.
Considering that high strikeout rates were trademarks of the Houston Astros organization from which the Orioles hired their new front office and whose success they hope to mimic, Baumann is one of the early signifiers that there are gains being made in Baltimore.
"I think they really just want to give us the information and help us along the way," said Baumann, 23. "It's our careers and our job to figure out how we're going to use it. ... I think it's for the best, and from the way it looks around the affiliates, it seems like a lot of other guys think so, too."
That's been particularly true for Baumann, who dominated at Low-A Delmarva in 2018 as he made his full-season debut before posting a 3.88 ERA in 17 starts at Frederick. Those two levels are seeing the most success with raising the strikeout rates.
Including Baumann, who starts Wednesday for Frederick, there are 24 pitchers in the organization with at least three starts through Sunday. Twelve of them have strikeout rates of over a batter per inning, and well-regarded prospects such as Baumann, former first-round picks Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, plus Delmarva standouts Blaine Knight and Ofelky Peralta, populate that list from the low minors.
Baumann was simple in explaining the organizational philosophy toward those strikeouts.
"You want to get to two strikes as quickly as possible, and you really just want to put them out," Baumann said. "Just knowing what your stuff is as a pitcher and being able to execute that."
For Baumann himself, he's learned different ways to utilize his stuff this season. He's always thrown a four-seam fastball, but it has a lot of run and can often get weak contact on the ground. Like so many other pitchers in this organization, and up until the point he joined it, he was constantly drilled to locate it at the knees.
The new front office, with minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt leading the way, has emphasized elevating the fastball above the zone and changing eye levels.
"Knowing that, and not worrying about painting the corners or trying to be perfect really helps," Baumann said. "I just go out there and let it ride, and it opens up a lot with your secondaries. ... It's kind of eye-opening. It's a different way to learn, a different way to go out there and pitch and prepare, but it seems like it's where baseball is going right now."
Escarra elevates his game
First baseman J.C. Escarra, 24, spent two weeks in Frederick early in 2018 as a fill-in player and felt he held his own, so he was disappointed when the Orioles sent him back to extended spring training to await the start of play at Short-A Aberdeen.
In the year since, he's tried to play like someone who won't have that opportunity taken away from him again.
"What happened last year affected me — getting moved to Frederick and doing well, then bringing me back down," Escarra said. "It just made me dig a little deeper inside to see what I'm capable of.”
Escarra had a circuitous path to being drafted by the Orioles out of Florida International in the 15th round of the 2017 draft. He made up for lost time as a pro by hitting .331 with six home runs and a .929 OPS for Aberdeen and skipping Low-A Delmarva to be the Keys' everyday first baseman this year.
He entered Wednesday batting .250 with three home runs and six doubles for the Keys.
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“I worked hard in the offseason and had a great year last year,” he said. “I think it's just going to grow from here."