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Orioles observations on the new Félix Hernández, the utility race and more good stuff from Jorge López | ANALYSIS

As veteran Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Todd Frazier stood on second base after his first-inning double off Félix Hernández in the first inning of Thursday’s Grapefruit League game, he offered an insight to the Pirates’ broadcast that represents the crux of the problem that the former Cy Young Award winner could run into as he tries to continue his career with the Orioles.

“You have more time than you think when a guy’s throwing slow,” said Frazier, who was wearing a microphone as part of the broadcast. “Let the hands work.”

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Hernández, 34, showed in his first spring training outing that he was working with diminished fastball velocity from his last time in the majors, when he averaged 89 mph in 2019.

There’s still good life on his sinker, but it was in the mid-80s again on Thursday in the Orioles’ 7-5 loss. MLB’s pitch-tracking service, Statcast, classified most of them as changeups in the first inning before it recalibrated by the end of his second inning.

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“That’s the kind of pitcher that I am,” Hernández said. “I think I can get to 91 [mph], I did last year. But that’s the kind of pitcher that I am right now. I don’t care about velocity. I just want to get people out. That’s it.”

In his first start Saturday, though, he missed many more bats with his fastball than he did Thursday.

The Pirates hit it hard, and though the run he allowed in his first inning was unearned after a fly ball fell into left field on Ryan Mountcastle’s patrol, the two runs he allowed on a home run by Anthony Alford came on an 85 mph fastball over the middle of the plate that Alford hit hard enough to leave the ballpark against the wind in right-center field.

Five of the 11 balls in play he allowed were hit harder than 95 mph off the bat, with Alford’s home run the hardest at 108.8 mph. Hernández noted that most of those hard-hit balls were on the ground.

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But Frazier’s assessment after his double, on which he hung back on a breaking ball, was telling. Hernández said that hitters are sitting on his secondary stuff, which him not throwing as hard as he used to allows them to do.

“They’re reacting a little bit different,” Hernández said. “I’ve been getting a lot of ground balls with my sinker but they were waiting on my curveball and changeup.”

There’s simply a smaller margin for error without the velocity that speeds hitters up and makes them react quickly to a fastball, thereby opening batters up to the bat-missing changeup and breaking ball that Hernández can feature.

Even with good movement on the fastball, hitters can still hang back and wait to react versus being jumpy in the batter’s box.

Urías hitting his way into roster picture

In the Orioles’ four-run third inning, Pat Valaika had an RBI double and came around to score on a single by Ramón Urías. The two infielders are perhaps the only position players battling for roster spots with the major league team this spring, and at least at the plate, Urías is ahead.

Valaika has three hits in 16 at-bats, with seven strikeouts and a pair of walks, while Urías has five hits in 16 at-bats. Each has a home run.

Money might be a factor, but with Valaika signing a split contract that pays him $300,000 if he’s in the minors and $875,000 if he’s in the majors, the Orioles will probably not save any money on payroll if they go with Urías over Valaika.

Maybe it will come down to baseball. If it does, each knows what Hyde will be looking for in deciding who will come north.

“For me, a true utility player is able to play short, is able to spell your shortstop, able to spell your second baseman, third baseman, possibly a corner outfield if need be,” Hyde said. “The more guys you have like that the better, and today’s day, with the grind of the six-month season and the ability to try to give guys days off, you’d like to have as many guys as you can able to play multiple spots. You definitely need a backup shortstop and if it’s a true utility guy, that’s a bonus.”

Choosing between the two of them won’t be a decision that materially impacts the Orioles’ fortunes this year. They could go with neither if the team is comfortable with Yolmer Sánchez as an emergency shortstop with the knowledge that the others are down the road in Bowie and only a day away from joining the team. But the fact that it’s a conversation is good for all involved.

Jorge López misses bats

Pitching behind Hernández for the second time in a week, right-hander Jorge López provided another large piece of evidence that he should be on the team when the season starts.

The out-of-options right-hander had another three-inning outing, this time allowing a run on a hit, a pair of walks and a wild pitch but striking out three and picking up 12 swinging strikes on 55 pitches.

He’s shaping up to be the quintessential swingman in their bullpen: capable of coming in early and shutting an opponent down for a turn or two through the lineup in a pinch but just as liable to enter in a difficult situation and make it worse. That inconsistency is often what keeps such pitchers out of the starting rotation. That trait, plus the fact that López has so many pitchers ahead of him on the rotation depth chart, are real obstacles to him taking the next step with the Orioles.

Spring training

PHILLIES@ORIOLES

Friday, 1 p.m.

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