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Orioles prospect Brenan Hanifee starting to see hard work pay off with overhauled pitch mix

Orioles prospect Brenan Hanifee starting to see hard work pay off with overhauled pitch mix
Orioles prospect Brenan Hanifee pitches for the Frederick Keys in 2019. (Patrick Cavey/Frederick Keys)

Orioles pitching prospect Brenan Hanifee knew the work had a purpose. He understood that the changes being asked of him when he jumped to High-A Frederick this year — after his impressive full-season debut at Low-A Delmarva — were for his own good.

But even he’ll acknowledge that his outing Sunday — a complete-game shutout against Salem that represented the best outing of his professional career — was a nice piece of validation for the overhaul that’s pushed him beyond his own boundaries and closer to a major league future.

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“The work for the first three months, I saw it pay off yesterday in the game,” Hanifee said Monday in Frederick. “I did struggle for some time, trying to get those pitches for strikes with good action, for swings-and-misses, and it just wasn’t happening. Yesterday, I feel like it finally came together. It’s been that way for a couple of weeks now, but yesterday, I really put it together. It’s rewarding to see.”

It’s also a validation of a sea-change in philosophy in terms of the Orioles’ minor league pitching operation, which was honored Monday with Hanifee’s Carolina League Pitcher of the Week award.

A fourth-round draft pick in 2016, Hanifee has always had a mature and polished approach, one that centered around a tremendously effective low-90s mph sinker. He threw it 80% of the time at Delmarva last year, recording a 2.68 ERA in 23 starts at age-20. That vaulted him to No. 11 on the organization’s top prospect list, according to Baseball America, but didn’t elevate his own perception of what he was doing on the mound much. In fact, the opposite was true.

"That's not going to cut it moving forward," Hanifee said. "I didn't really take the time to work on my off-speed stuff last year. I stuck with what was working, and I was able to put together a good year. Ultimately, that wasn't a great year for me, honestly. I definitely got better from experience, but from a stuff standpoint, from a pitching standpoint, I didn't challenge myself to make pitches in counts that were helpful."

Orioles prospect Brenan Hanifee pitches for the Frederick Keys in 2019.
Orioles prospect Brenan Hanifee pitches for the Frederick Keys in 2019. (Patrick Cavey/Frederick Keys)

That changed this year, with the focus being on his slider and changeup being pitches he's confident throwing in any count. The Orioles have seen improvement in both the low-80s slider and his mid-80s changeup, but throwing them in games, especially at an advanced level, presents challenges.

"Throwing off-speed pitches in hitters' counts, there's a lot riding on that pitch," Hanifee said. "If it's over the plate, it's probably going to be a good pitch. But if you throw a 2-1 changeup that's for a ball, now you're 3-1. You're back in a hitter's count. Now what? You're probably throwing a fastball 3-1, and if it's not in a good location, it's getting hammered. Just battling on a nightly basis and challenging yourself has been good for me."

He showed some of that progress earlier this month in a start against Lynchburg, when he settled in after a rocky first inning and was confident enough in his secondary pitches to open at-bats with them instead of just sticking with his fastball. He gave up a pair of costly home runs in the sixth to end that outing, but got back on track with seven innings of two-run ball with six strikeouts July 8 and fanned four while allowing five hits in an efficient 91-pitch outing Sunday.

Hanifee got 11 first-pitch outs Sunday to allow him to pitch into the ninth and lowered his ERA to 4.40 this season, with a 1.42 WHIP. Considering that 27 of the 44 earned runs he’s allowed this season were scored in four of his 17 outings, his year has been better than it looks. That he’s starting to find success while overhauling his repertoire — he hopes for a 60% fastball mix — means Hanifee is getting more than just a learning experience in his first taste of Frederick.

"He was such a high-fastball percentage guy with his sinker," Frederick manager Ryan Minor said. "At times, his sinker is unhittable. But to go through the upper levels nowadays, you have to have some other stuff, and you have to develop it here.

"I think one of the things that's stood out for me is, I know we're developing pitches at this level to get hitters out, but you want to be able to develop pitches to get hitters out in the AL East and the big leagues. Why not start that right now instead of when you get to Double-A or Triple-A when the hitters are better? For a guy like Brenan, he's really taken advantage of the technology that we've used and are using, and it's been to his advantage to start now."

Bringing home the hardware

Hanifee was one of three Orioles minor leaguers to earn his league’s weekly awards Monday. Infielder Jace Peterson was the International League Batter of the Week, and is riding an eight-game hitting streak in which he’s hit .519 (14-for-27) with three home runs and four doubles for Triple-A Norfolk.

Left-hander Ryan Wilson was the South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week after striking out 11 in seven scoreless innings July 9 for Delmarva. He joined the Shorebirds rotation May 18 and has a 2.89 ERA in nine starts since.

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