Whether they meant to or not, the pitchers targeted during the Orioles' teardown trades last summer came from organizations that not only had embraced baseball's data revolution but had found ways to improve their players with the fruits of it.
Then, those pitchers were plucked from the best seasons of their young careers and placed into an organization that hadn't yet embraced those tools.
Pitching development has barreled forward in recent years, with the proliferation of data-tracking systems, speed cameras and reams of information helping teams refine and advance the arsenals of their young arms.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the Houston Astros system from which the Orioles plucked executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal and minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt. Elias said "there is a little bit of secret sauce behind that," that the pitchers who have been exposed to such methods before are looking forward to another taste.
"I'm big into the new analytics and stuff like that, so I like to see the data that I produce, I guess, with how my pitches play off each other," said right-hander Dean Kremer, who came from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade and led the minors in strikeouts last year. "I'm big into that, and from what I hear, the new GM is also kind of into that because they're doing that with the Astros. I'm definitely excited to continue to do that."
Kremer, 23, said he "definitely came into a shock to see what other organizations were doing," and he wasn't alone. Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann (Loyola Blakefield) was in the middle of a breakout season in the Atlanta Braves system when he came to his hometown club in the trade for pitchers Kevin Gausman and Darren O'Day. The Braves were taking more steps toward analytics-driven player development last year, he said, and the 23-year-old hopes for more of that in his first full year with the Orioles.
"It's kind of like a give and take," Zimmermann said. "You have the old-school guys and the new-school guys. You can't have one and not the other, so I'm really looking forward to seeing how they're able to blend the two together, and bring in the new things. Everybody has TrackMan, but bring in maybe Rapsodo, the other slow-motion cameras, or even just the analytics of breaking down hitter by hitter, lefty-righty, whatever it may be. I'm just looking forward to seeing how they adapt and kind of update our whole pitching department from that aspect, for sure."
Dillon Tate, the former first-round draft pick who came from the New York Yankees in the Zack Britton trade, credited his hand placement last year as part of the reason he'd found success before the trade. At FanFest, the 24-year-old right-hander mentioned the Rapsodo cameras were what brought that about.
"I felt like a lot of stuff that I learned happened with the slow-motion cameras, so I could really see what my hand is doing and I could see what the rest of my body is doing and how I'm moving, and as the pitch is going toward home," Tate said. "That helped me out pretty good, and understanding the way that my ball moves, and what pitch package is going to work best for me and allow me to be successful there."
As the Orioles prepare for their first spring training under Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, the continued progress of these pitchers when they get some of their preferred tools back will be paramount. So too will the introduction of these practices to the scores of pitchers who haven't benefited from them. At his FanFest panel, Mejdal provided a description of the data that teams are now able to collect.
"We're able to describe the stuff to three decimal points, and begin to see the specific idiosyncratic behavior of the different hitters and how they succeed or struggle against pitches that aren't just called a slider but instead a pitch at 83 mph with 18 inches of horizontal movement and an inch and a half of depth," Mejdal said. "It's just the language has changed a bit with higher resolution that the technologies are providing."
Some organizations, including the Astros, had gotten to the point where they were building and refining pitches based on making them act the way the most successful version of, say, a slider or curveball might on its way to the plate. That's part of why Holt was brought in, and part of the reason Elias has expressed confidence they can replicate some of the Astros' success. According to FanGraphs, the Astros' affiliates led all other organizations in strikeouts last year.
But there are more ways for this to benefit young pitchers than building their pitches. New Orioles pitching coach Doug Brocail was with the Astros from 2011 to 2015 in several different roles in the majors and minors. He said that once he moved on to the Texas Rangers, he saw several pitchers he'd worked with drastically change their repertoires by knocking out weak pitches and accentuating strong ones.
That's what happened to Kremer after he struggled in his full-season debut in 2017 with the Dodgers organization. The team's analytics staff recommended he work with his four-seam fastball and curveball more, and his performance shot up. Using pitches he knew worked well gave him confidence to be aggressive, and he ended up with 178 strikeouts in 25 starts between the two organizations.
Improvements like that are what Elias and Mejdal found was possible with plenty of Astros players, as this generation of prospects is taking advantage of the data available.
"They're growing up with it," Mejdal said. "They're as sophisticated as can be. The minor leaguers, they appreciate that they're not where they want to be, and if this can help them, there's not the cynicism or pushback that may have been there a generation ago. They can't get enough of it."