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Orioles reset: Amid historic pitching struggles, Chris Holt hopes ‘hard lessons’ will help a new crop of arms

On the Orioles’ farm, young hitters are often shown data on how they can do the most damage on pitches in the heart of the plate.

Those types of pitches are often mistakes, and at the major league level, the Orioles’ pitchers are finding out what happens to them the hard way — with startling frequency.

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Chris Holt, in his first year as major league pitching coach in addition to his director of pitching responsibilities, said those difficult lessons for the pitching staff — as well as the relative inexperience of the group and the carry-over effects of a shortened 2020 season — are behind what could end up being a historically poor statistical season on the mound for the Orioles.

“Simply put, when we have struggled this year, it’s been because of poor command and mistake pitches, and you pay for them here,” Holt said. “You pay for those with these lineups in the AL East — and any other major league team for that matter. It’s just you pay for them more here in this division and these ballparks. There’s no question about that.

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“When it comes to what are we working here to prove through that process, we’re learning some hard lessons, and we can hope that others can learn before they get here from those hard lessons that we’re having right now, too.”

Those lessons, cumulatively, are creating a staggering struggle where it counts the most. The Orioles are the majors’ worst team at 40-89, and few teams in baseball history have pitched as poorly as they have.

Their 5.86 ERA ranks third-highest in the expansion era (since 1961) behind the 1996 Detroit Tigers’ 6.32 and the 1999 Colorado Rockies’ 6.03. By ERA+, which adjusts for the scoring conditions in the league in a given season as well as ballpark, with 100 being league average, the Orioles entered Sunday at 77 — the worst in baseball history.

Even in a year in which the Orioles didn’t expect to be competitive, how they’ve arrived at this historic place has been complicated. Every team was prepared to spread the workload around to account for a shortened season of work for both established and inexperienced pitchers in 2020 because of the pandemic.

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The Orioles, knowing they’d have several rookies in their rotation who they needed to keep healthy and on track to contribute down the road, stocked up on minor league free agents they could cycle on and off the roster to cover the surplus innings.

But those rookies who were in the high minors for the organization’s pitching renaissance haven’t solidified themselves very well in the majors, and there have been far more struggles than successes for the depth pitchers. Of their established arms, John Means was one of the game’s top pitchers until a shoulder injury in June, and he’s only occasionally recaptured that form since returning. Matt Harvey has been better of late, while Jorge López was finally moved to the bullpen this past week.

Of their relievers, Tanner Scott, Paul Fry (who was sent to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday) and Cole Sulser have had stretches of pitching well until put in high-leverage situations. Rule 5 draft pick Tyler Wells is among the only true success stories of the season.

Orioles pitching coach/director of pitching Chris Holt, left, talks with relief pitcher Paul Fry, center, and catcher Austin Wynns during the ninth inning of a game against the Blue Jays on June 19. Fry was sent to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday.
Orioles pitching coach/director of pitching Chris Holt, left, talks with relief pitcher Paul Fry, center, and catcher Austin Wynns during the ninth inning of a game against the Blue Jays on June 19. Fry was sent to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Even as they’ve been prioritizing health and trying to stay focused on the processes they believe will help create and sustain major league success, Holt acknowledged, “We’re here to perform.”

“We’re here to win. That’s a very big piece of what we’re looking at,” Holt said.

He credited manager Brandon Hyde for his efforts to keep pitchers healthy this year, and said despite the disappointments of the season so far, the Orioles with a month-plus remaining in the season “continue to go at it with a process.”

“We’re doing some things well and we work to maintain those,” Holt said. “If there’s things we need to improve or fix, we work to that end and work to transfer it in a game as soon as possible. That’s what we’ve worked to do all year — when we’ve had success, when we’ve had OK outings, and when we’ve had difficult ones.”

With a revolving door at the back end of the rotation and in the front of their bullpen, Holt and assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes have worked to stay consistent with their charges in hopes of finding quick fixes to issues on the mound and sustaining the good outings they do have.

Holt took over for pitching coach Doug Brocail last fall after serving as the director of pitching with dual roles in the minors and majors in 2020. His elevation to the top job on the pitching side was expected to allow some of the data and technology that has been prevalent on the Orioles’ farm in recent years to filter more seamlessly to the majors, and his background of delivery analysis and pitch design made him a quintessential modern-day pitching coach.

Progress, though, has been slow at the major league level.

“I expected us to be competing every day, and I still think we show up to the yard every day knowing and thinking that we can win when we execute our plan and go out and put our game together,” Holt said. “You look at the record on the year and a lot of disappointing losses and disappointing performances at times, but there’s been a lot of positives as well.

“For some of these guys to be learning the lessons that they are right now on the job is a very challenging thing. They have to continue to stay positive themselves and take away the positives and then try to work on the things to be consistent. It’s a huge challenge that they’re taking on, and we stand by them.”

What’s to come?

The Orioles’ first trip to Canada since the end of 2019 marks the start of a stretch in which they face the Blue Jays 10 more times in the last five weeks of the season. For a Blue Jays team that finds itself outside the playoff race, that’s a chance to make up some ground.

Unfortunately for Toronto, the Orioles go to New York for three games against the Yankees, another playoff aspirant, after that. The Tampa Bay Rays, by virtue of beating the Orioles 18 of 19 times this season, have done well to boost their postseason case against the bottom team in their division. This week will be another chance for those chasing the Rays to do the same.

What was good?

Plenty of Orioles had good weeks, including Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander, but Austin Hays having a big week was a turnaround the team will be glad to see. Hays didn’t always start, ceding the left-field job to DJ Stewart against right-handed starters until Sunday, but came off the bench with big hits when he did and ended up batting .500 (9-for-18) with five extra-base hits and a 1.471 OPS during the past week.

With this week alone, he raised his OPS from .688 to .726. As Cedric Mullins and Mountcastle have solidified themselves as future pieces of the Orioles and others have decidedly not, Hays has remained in a middle ground of sorts. Weeks like this stacked on top of one another for the rest of the season would certainly change that.

What wasn’t?

It looked like Spenser Watkins was going to complete what was the best turn through the rotation in recent memory, if not the entire season for the Orioles, by pitching into the sixth inning Sunday before the Rays ended up scoring three times against him and leaving him with six runs on his account. Watkins, who allowed 14 earned runs during the past week, was optioned to Norfolk after the game.

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Orioles rookie pitcher Spenser Watkins was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk after allowing six runs Sunday against the Rays.
Orioles rookie pitcher Spenser Watkins was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk after allowing six runs Sunday against the Rays. (Gail Burton/AP)

The Orioles giving Watkins his major league debut and having him carve out a rotation role was a bright spot of what’s been a trying season, but his season arc is one that can befall any kind of rookie pitcher, even a 29-year-old one. Once teams got a chance to see what he likes to do and how he pitches, they adjusted. Now, it’s time for him to adjust back and give himself a chance to stick around long-term.

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On the farm

With two home runs Wednesday and another Sunday, there’s a new home run leader on the Orioles farm: outfielder Kyle Stowers. The 71st overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft has 21 between High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie, and is batting .279 with a .910 OPS this season.

The 23-year-old slugger is one of many benefiting from the Orioles helping players hone their swing decisions to focus on pitches they can drive, and with all the intrinsic raw power Stowers already brings, the results are showing up in games.

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