When Orioles pitcher Tyler Wells was 4, his dying mother had a choice.
Chasity Wells’ original diagnosis for acute lymphocytic leukemia came with a 90% survival rate. But after going into remission, she began to feel unwell again. During a visit to the hospital with her husband, Jeff, they learned the initial diagnosis came without a genetic test that would’ve revealed an anomaly making her cancer particularly resilient. By the time they returned, a doctor said her chances of living for another six months were under 25%.
He gave her two options: enjoy the next handful of months with her two young sons or “poison yourself to death” with extreme dosages of chemotherapy. Only the latter offered a chance at survival.
“I have to fight for my boys,” she said.
Chasity died six months later. She was 24.
Wells, 26, has little memory of that time or his mom. But he hears often about how similar they are in physical appearance, their mannerisms and particularly their “stubbornness.”
“He’s always been determined to do what you tell him he can’t do,” Jeff Wells said. “He definitely gets that from his mom.”
That mindset has led to a rapid ascent up the Orioles’ bullpen ladder. Between Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and the coronavirus pandemic, Wells hadn’t pitched in two seasons when Baltimore took him from the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the Rule 5 draft.
Early on, he looked every bit like a pitcher who had only six professional appearances above High-A, but since the start of June, he has blossomed into one of manager Brandon Hyde’s most trusted relievers, displaying the stuff, confidence and aggressiveness that initially made the Orioles believe he could handle the jump to the majors after two years off.
“He walks around, and he has from the beginning, like he belongs here,” Hyde said.
Offering an escape
Wells stands at 6-foot-8, throws a high-90s fastball and is committed to challenging opposing batters.
But Jeff recalls that massive frame once crumpled on the mound in tears.
Chasity’s parents naturally remained in Wells’ life after her death, with her mother, Pam, particularly bonding with the toddler. A North Carolina native, Pam was “warm, Southern, and super, super sweet,” Jeff said.
Wells was scheduled to start a junior varsity game the day Pam had unexpected heart failure, dying at 54 as she got ready for work. When Jeff picked up Wells from school and told him, he added that he would call the baseball coach and tell him to find another starter. But baseball had represented an escape for Wells since Chasity’s death, his dream to be a major leaguer founded as a 5-year-old. It would be an escape again.
Entering in relief, Wells allowed one hit and struck out 14 over the final six innings as his team rallied to win. He broke down and cried on the field afterward.
More than a decade later, watching games from across the country in Southern California, Jeff is able to trace his son’s successes to that performance.
“When I watch him on TV, I see that same drive, that same fire that I saw in him that day,” Jeff said, “as somebody who is just not going to let this opportunity slip because we don’t have many opportunities in our lives and certainly very few like this one.”
Wells had made only one high-leverage appearance when Hyde tasked him last week with trying to leave the bases loaded in the ninth as the Orioles clung to a slim lead against the Toronto Blue Jays. A nine-pitch battle with Bo Bichette ended in a bloop to right field that scarcely avoided being caught for the final out and instead tied the game. Two mistake pitches followed, and the Orioles lost the first of what has become a six-game losing streak.
Wells bounced back his next time out with a clean inning featuring two strikeouts, a stat in which he leads all rookie relievers. Despite his disappointment in that lost lead, he savored it as a learning experience. He will be better the next time he gets put in that situation, he believes.
“Major League Baseball is already hard enough,” Wells said. “Don’t make it harder on yourself by not being confident in your ability to go out there and compete with the best in the world.”
‘A legitimate chance’
Wells had relative success in the lower minors after the Twins drafted him in 2016′s 15th round. But LaTroy Hawkins believed he could be better.
A baseball operations special assistant for the Twins, Hawkins spent 21 years in the majors, well aware of the physical demands of doing so. During a 2017 trip to see the Twins’ Low-A affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he questioned whether Wells was capable of meeting them.
“You have a legitimate chance to pitch in the big leagues with your stuff,” Hawkins recalls saying after a brief introduction. “I just don’t want your body to be the reason why you don’t.”
Wells was a “big ol’ donkey,” Hawkins said, but also “soft,” not in the shape necessary to endure a full major league season. Wells admits that, to that point, his diet consisted of “kind of whatever you want,” largely built around pizza and doughnuts. That offseason, he adopted a low-carb, high-protein diet, dropping about 60 pounds. He followed with his best season as a professional, posting a 2.49 ERA while allowing fewer than one base runner an inning. He felt sharper mentally. He never experienced post-start inflammation. He began to appear as one of Minnesota’s top prospects.
“This game is not for the people that aren’t ready to put their bodies on the line,” Wells said.
But the following spring, he felt a pop in his elbow, one he knew would immediately lead to season-ending Tommy John surgery. Jeff recalls a day-after Advil being the only pain medication Wells took throughout the recovery process.
“That’s a minor setback, bro,” Hawkins told him. “Tommy John surgery will not define you. You’re still on a good track to be in the big leagues for a very long time.”
A change for the best
The recovery time for Tommy John surgery typically exceeds a year. Wells wanted to capitalize on that lost time. He made tweaks to ensure the repeatability of a delivery his height makes complex. Hoping to continue as a starter once he was pitching again, he knew his changeup needed work.
He arrived for spring training in 2020 on track to return some time that summer. It wasn’t long before that opportunity vanished.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training, Wells and his roommate, fellow Twins minor leaguer Tom Hackimer, chose to stay in Florida. In the open lawn space of their apartment complex, the two regularly played catch, with Wells working to improve his changeup. A student of modern-age pitch design, Hackimer helped Wells find a grip that suited his feel-based approach while also providing movement necessary to be effective pitch.
It’s proven vital. Opponents have swung through that changeup more than 40% of the time, among the 10 highest rates in the American League.
Given Wells’ drive to be on the field, a second lost season in some ways benefited him, Hackimer said. It allowed Wells not only to methodically manage his health rather than rush back, but also improve while he did so.
“It’s very clear how he got to where he is,” Hackimer said. “Going through two seasons of no baseball and then going straight into where he is now, a big part of why he’s able to do that is the confidence. There was never a doubt in his mind that he would be able to.”
‘Everything that you’ve always wanted’
In December, the Orioles selected Wells in the second round of the Rule 5 draft, requiring him to remain with the major league team all year to stick with the organization. Of Baltimore’s six Rule 5 draftees the past three years, Wells is one of two still with the Orioles and the only one in the majors.
Early on, when Hackimer caught bits of Wells’ major league outings, they came as highlights on MLB’s social media accounts not of Wells, but instead the batters he was facing hitting long home runs off him. Entering June, Wells’ ERA was 5.48 as opponents slugged nearly .500 against him.
He credits a change in mentality for this month’s change in performance. When the Orioles visited Minnesota last month, Wells was able to reconnect with Hawkins, who reminded him not to “get caught up in who’s hitting and what jersey they have on and where you’re pitching at.” Since that road trip, the narrowly blown save against the Blue Jays accounts for the only time this month Wells been scored on, surrendering two runs in 12 ⅓ innings. The OPS he has allowed in June is half of what it was through the season’s first two months.
“Whenever I got the call with the Rule 5 and whatnot, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna be a major league baseball player,’” Well said. “It’s like, ‘All right, time to work for everything that you’ve always wanted.’”
Hawkins hopes his protege soon gets the chance to showcase his aggressive approach in Baltimore’s rotation. Hyde has said repeatedly the Orioles are open to such a change for Wells down the line, if not before the end of this year.
But Wells is focused on the present. He’s well aware the future is not guaranteed.
“I don’t take any of this for granted,” Wells said. “I know that not just baseball and not just being in Major League Baseball but life in general can be taken from you in an instant.”