Of all the things Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias wanted to bring to his new job from the Houston Astros, the one that could have the greatest short-term impact was the implementation of his former organization’s pitching program.
The Astros’ farm system featured affiliates that led their league in strikeouts at every level in 2018. Under the direction of minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt, previously the assistant pitching coordinator with Houston, the results with the Orioles are trending in that direction.
“The first thing that comes to mind — strikeouts and strikeout numbers going up for our organization — going up this year is a nice thing to see,” Holt said. "It isn’t the only goal. Ultimately, pitching involves more than strikeouts. However, in today’s game, being able to create swing-and-miss is a huge piece of bringing value to the pitching staff at the big league level. So, we know the value of strikeouts being what it is, is an important piece of the equation.
“That said, in terms of everything we’re working to do developmentally, really what goes into this year is, No. 1, communication with the players — consistently communicating helpful and actionable information, whether it’s daily or every other day, in their preparation and in their working repetitions.”
The installation of Holt after Elias was hired, combined with an investment in high-speed cameras and several new data and technology initiatives under assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal, has taken the operation in the direction more modern teams have been heading for years. Previously, radar systems such as TrackMan were part of the Orioles’ amateur scouting and player evaluation tools in the front office, but had little utility at the field level.
That’s changed this year in a big way. When Holt has been at High-A Frederick, pitchers’ bullpen sessions have the high-speed edgertronic camera set up behind the mound with an iPad attached to quickly show what it’s seeing. Holt and Keys pitching coach Justin Lord also take video on cellphones to show the pitcher his delivery in the moment, and the sessions take on a collaborative and instructive feel as each pitch has a specific goal.
That’s where the bat-missing pitches that have emerged throughout the Orioles’ system are developed.
“Simply put, no longer is there anything in the verbiage about pitching to contact or just trying to get a ground ball,” Holt said. "We will get ground balls en route to working to strike guys out. So, a lot of this comes down to, ‘What are they being asked to work to do, and how are we supporting them with a method to back that with a daily process, the work, and the intent and performance goals come game time?’ "
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“It’s just a different philosophy as far as how we’re attacking hitters,” said Keys manager Ryan Minor, who has coached and managed in the Orioles’ organization for 12 years. "Usually, at your lower levels, it’s always fastball command, fastball command. Times have changed now.
"You've got to start throwing everything for strikes, so we're really utilizing the high-speed cameras and the philosophy now is less fastball usage, and you want to be able to strike more guys out, because the less runners on base, the less chances there are to score runs. The higher strikeout rates now that you see, that's what we're trying to get to."
Frederick is one of several places where that bat-missing mentality has taken hold. Both Holt and Minor mentioned right-hander Michael Baumann as someone who has boosted his strikeout rate while allowing fewer base runners this year. Others, such as DL Hall and Keegan Akin, have had their strikeout rates spike, albeit with their walk rates jumping as well.
For others, the mandate away from just throwing well-located fastballs and getting weak contact has made for a difficult year. At Frederick, for example, right-hander Brenan Hanifee is being weaned off his standout sinker so he can throw his slider and changeup for strikes more regularly, but is walking more batters and not replicating his previous success as a result.
“Overall, to see that byproduct of an increased strikeout number, and also the WHIP being better, and hits-per-inning being better, and the [fielding-independent pitching] numbers lowering for a lot of guys," Holt said, “those are all things that are byproducts of having a consistent message, and a consistent intent behind the work and a purpose behind the goals.”