Presented with a statistics-based offer to change, Tanner Scott did not decline.
In studying Scott’s final spring training outings before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the preseason, Orioles first-year bullpen coach Darren Holmes noticed an intriguing trend: When the hard-throwing left-hander pitched with a slide step, he threw strikes on more than 70% of his pitches. If he used a traditional knee-lift motion, he threw a ball more than half the time.
“We showed him the information,” Holmes said Saturday, “and he said, ‘OK, I’m all in.’”
The change to what Holmes said the Orioles refer to as a “load-and-go” motion has seemingly paid off for Scott, who has become manager Brandon Hyde’s primary late-inning lefty since the trade of Richard Bleier. In 14 outings, Scott has posted a 2.08 ERA while striking out nearly a third of the batters he’s faced.
Right-hander Miguel Castro, whose 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio is double his previous career high, also made a similar tweak at Holmes’ suggestion. Holmes, who was Castro’s bullpen coach with the Colorado Rockies in 2015 and 2016, said the Orioles wanted Castro to work in a slide step more often to prevent opposing hitters getting their timing against him. Despite a high-90s mph sinker, Castro never averaged more than one strikeout an inning in his first three years with Baltimore.
“That’s where he’s going to make his money is disrupting timing,” Holmes said. “If he’s slow, guys have a chance to time him up. If he mixes that in, it puts another thought in their mind, and I think he’s starting to realize that now.”
Holmes said about nine of the 17 pitches Castro threw Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays were out of the slide step. In that game, Castro and Scott combined for seven outs, with five coming via strikeouts.
Scott’s strike percentage has actually slightly dropped from last season, when he issued 19 walks in 26⅓ innings, but the results of those pitches have improved. Although the average velocities of his fastball and slider aren’t much different, the spin rates on both have increased by about 200 revolutions per minute each, according to Statcast, affecting the movement and trajectory of each pitch.
His slider in particular has been dominant. Of the 26 at-bats Scott has ended with that pitch, 14 have been strikeouts, tied for the fourth-most strikeouts with a slider among any reliever. Only one of the 12 sliders put in play have been turned into a hit, with that dozen having a collective average launched angle of minus-8 degree, meaning that even if the pitch is hit, it’s hit into the ground.
That’s reflected in Scott’s groundball rate, which at 69.2% is nearly 20% higher than last year. It’s also the fourth-highest rate among any pitcher with at least 10 innings in 2020.
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“He’s a 96-100 [mph] guy at times, and if you can just get that in the zone, with — he has a plus slider — he’s going to be very successful, and that’s what he’s done this year,” Holmes said.
The same sentence in many ways applies to Castro. A spurt of six runs in four outings has his ERA above 4.00, and he’s been among the hardest-hit pitchers in baseball. But Castro’s 55% groundball rate and 34.3% strikeout rate are career highs, while his 7.1% walk rate is a career low.
Steps forward from Scott and Castro have much to do with why Baltimore’s bullpen at large is better. After ranking last in baseball in 2019, the Orioles entered Saturday’s game with the league’s 10th-lowest relief ERA.
“I think Holmesy’s been huge for us, really do,” Hyde said. “I can see a huge difference, just how our guys have improved out of the bullpen, and he’s one of those guys that really cares, player invested, low ego, and just wants to get guys better, and the guys really like him down there. This guy pitched a long time in the big leagues in a lot of different roles. He was a closer. He’s been a setup guy. He’s been all different sorts of roles in the bullpen, and that’s extremely helpful to have somebody to lean on for those guys down there.”
Although that group lost Shawn Armstrong to an injured list stint Saturday, Hunter Harvey returned from the injured list Sunday. Holmes cautioned that the Orioles will be careful with the former first-round pick throughout the season’s final month, with it being doubtful he pitches consecutive days and possible he gets as much as three days between outings.