In a hotel suite high above the Las Vegas strip at baseball’s winter meetings in December, new Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said part of his plan for getting his new team back on track would be the “secret sauce” that allowed the Houston Astros to lead every minor league level in strikeouts as part of their exemplary pitching development program.
Elias’ first season in charge of the Orioles, at least on the farm, has shown that pitching progress is indeed transferable. Armed mostly with holdovers from the previous front office’s drafts, which were pitching-heavy and in some ways driven by the same data the new front office values, the Orioles had three playoff teams in the minors this year. Double-A Bowie and Low-A Delmarva made the postseason. The Orioles’ affiliate had the best record in the Gulf Coast League, whose playoffs were cancelled because of Hurricane Dorian. A fourth affiliate, Short-A Aberdeen, missed the playoffs by one game.
All four of those teams topped their league in ERA, and all but the GCL club, which was second, had the best WHIP in the league. While the strikeout rates climbed at every level, they didn’t reach Astros’ levels. But the overall progress means a foundation is in place for what Elias and company have in store.
“I think if you look at us and Delmarva, the starting pitching kind of carried both of our clubs,” Bowie manager Buck Britton said. “And I think that’s very important in the minor leagues.”
“I think it’s really encouraging,” said Bowie left-hander Zac Lowther, who continues to be one of the success stories in the system. “This is the first year we’re implementing a lot of this stuff, and you see the results, where sometimes it doesn’t happen that fast and it takes a couple years. But I think everyone was really able to buy into learning.”
Even toward the end of the Orioles’ time with Dan Duquette as executive vice president and Gary Rajsich as scouting director, the team used data from TrackMan radar systems to target pitchers with indicators of future success. But there’s been more information made available to the players this year under minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt, who set the tone in spring training — long with the group of pitching coaches — as to what was expected for everyone.
The goals, the 23-year-old Lowther said, allowed players to track their progress and grade themselves as the season progressed. It was “a lot of long-term stuff, but you could see it in the game,” Lowther said.
For him, it was a pitch plan that de-emphasized his “invisiball” fastball that jumps on hitters despite modest velocity in favor of his secondary pitches, which it’s been made clear are paramount to moving up the ladder.
“I think as you go into the season, you see all those things come to fruition,” Lowther said.
At different levels, it’s meant different things. At Triple-A Norfolk, outside of 24-year-old left-hander Keegan Akin, it was mostly an up-and-down staff that was trying to learn on the fly while shuffling between the minors and majors. Bowie’s staff was well-regarded as the season began, and only improved with such prospects as Lowther, Michael Baumann, Bruce Zimmermann, Dean Kremer and Alex Wells the constants in the Double-A rotation.
Former top pick Cody Sedlock was a success story at High-A Frederick, even if former high picks Brenan Hanifee and Blaine Knight had uneven seasons there. Left-hander DL Hall, the Orioles’ top pick in 2017, showed premier stuff at Frederick even without the most consistent results. And at Delmarva, 2018 top pick Grayson Rodriguez headlined a rotation that featured fellow 19-year-old Drew Rom, Gray Fenter, Ryan Wilson, Hector Guance and Ofelky Peralta.
Countless relievers took steps forward as well at every level.
Elias was pretty emphatic this week in stressing that development — not winning — was the goal on the farm. He said the Orioles don’t keep players at levels just for playoff races, and always try to make the right call for the player, even if it’s not in the interest of winning that night.
That said, the current success has some bearing on their forecasts for the future.
“I think over time, and over a broad enough sample, the winning percentage of the teams is somewhat an indicator of the talent,” Elias said. “And we do take some pride in it.
"And the fact that the strikeout rates across the minor leagues have gone up quite a bit, and Aberdeen and the Delmarva set franchise records for wins and strikeouts, respectively, I think that’s indicative of something going on at the developmental level. Winning in the minor leagues is something that you don’t try to do, but we certainly like to celebrate it when it happens.”
While some of the staffs are old for their levels — a symptom of the Orioles’ recent emphasis on college pitching and their lack of emphasis on singing international free agents until this year — many are at an experience level that’s appropriate, allowing them to excel against the competition that’s right for them.
“This time right here is a perfect way to learn how to make your fastball play better by using your off-speed pitches,” Lowther said. “And just the reps with guys that are at the same level as you, a lot of these guys are going to be in the big leagues in a couple of years. That’s where we want to be. Starting now is going to be something we want to get ahead of the game with.”
As a longtime minor league manager and former farm director for the Chicago Cubs, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said the Orioles’ minor league success is the right kind.
“I think if you look at our affiliates, we’re young at a lot of our affiliates,” Hyde said. “To have youth and have prospects and play well and win, that’s your organizational goal — to be as young as you can possibly be at every single level, have prospects at every level and have the teams win, to develop winning players. I just want to see players do well.”