A post-start conversation between Orioles right-hander David Hess and pitching coach Doug Brocail neatly summed up the challenge of balancing a need for development and the desire for competitiveness that the young staff faces.
“It sucks,” Hess told Brocail, “that I’m learning at the expense of runs being put on the board.”
The Orioles entered this weekend’s series with the Minnesota Twins with the worst staff ERA in baseball, having allowed more home runs before May 1 than any other team in major league history. The team’s pitching staff, second youngest in the American League behind the Tampa Bay Rays, attempts to put together competitive outings while learning how to, and how not to, pitch in the major leagues.
“We just don't have the experience to be able to navigate, and pitching on the edges is confidence,” first-year manager Brandon Hyde said. “It's confidence in your stuff. It's confidence that I can command. It's confidence that I've gotten through these innings before. It's confidence that I've pitched against the middle of the order in a big spot and gotten out of it by doing certain things, and if you haven't had those experiences, then it's more difficult. We don't have a ton of experience in that way.”
Some of the Orioles’ learning moments can be narrowed to single pitches, those that hang over an outing afterward but were singular moments within back-and-forth games. Although opponents have sent some of those pitches over the fence, that’s not to say the Orioles, at times, haven’t done exactly what they wanted to with a pitch or sacrificed one pitch to set up the next.
"I think when you see our repeated mistakes, a lot of times, it's not because of our stuff,” Hyde said. “It's because we don't have the confidence yet and the experience yet to be able to work through innings and to be able to understand that if I pitch off the edge and I don't get a swing and miss, I'm OK going to the next pitch or the next hitter.”
That thought process is often there. The ability to execute it has been inconsistent. An element of that is confidence to do so with regularity.
Hyde has few alternatives to putting inexperienced pitchers in pressure-packed moments. He hopes they’ll be better for it.
“They're gonna continue to have the opportunity to get that confidence,” Hyde said, “because they're gonna be in the fire."
And sometimes, they’ve gotten burned.
Coming off his hand, Hess knew the pitch lacked the life he hoped for it.
In Monday’s start against the Chicago White Sox, Hess, 25, was in control for four innings, limiting his opponent to one base runner. He said his “OK, it’s there today” pitch was a 2-2, down-and-away fastball that Yonder Alonso swung through for a strikeout.
But the fifth inning saw that strong start collapse in a matter of batters. A double by Tim Anderson and a walk to Nicky Delmonico — a plate appearance in which Delmonico fouled off a full-count pitch similar to the one Hess got past Alonso — put runners on the corners for James McCann.
Hess got ahead 1-2, picking up that his fastball was the most effective pitch in the matchup. Earlier in the at-bat, McCann had chased an 0-2 slider out of the zone, sending it barely foul with a soft liner down the right-field line on what would’ve been a bad-luck hit for Hess.
“I thought I got off lucky at that point,” Hess said with a chuckle seeping with dramatic irony.
He and catcher Pedro Severino decided to go with a slider again to set up the fastball. Ideally, it would be a strike-to-ball pitch, one that starts in the zone before its break sends it out. Best-case scenario, McCann chases or rolls it over for a double play. If he takes it or fouls it off, then Hess can go to his fastball.
The at-bat didn’t see another pitch. The slider didn’t snap as Hess wanted, coming in toward the middle of the zone. McCann hammered it to left field for a three-run home run.
“It just kind of hovered over the plate,” Hess said. “I mean, that's a big league hitter, and you can't do that to them."
That’s a massive element. Yes, the Orioles’ young pitchers have to contend with the pressures of the big league stage with the crowds and ballparks, but the mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate. The problem becomes the batters there waiting don’t often miss mistakes.
In the minors, maybe Hess still allows a double on that pitch but is able to escape with less damage done. Maybe it gets fouled off and the pitch just becomes another buried in Hess’ total for the night as he gets another shot at the 1-2 pitch. Better yet, a lesser hitter might hit a grounder for a double play.
"Every good pitcher, every elite pitcher is gonna hang pitches at times,” Hyde said. “That's just part of being a human being and being on the mound. You're gonna make mistakes on the mound.”
Minimizing those, then, becomes the goal for these Orioles. The White Sox struck for another run later in the inning, and after four scoreless innings, Hess left the start with four runs allowed in five innings. On Friday, Hyde announced Hess will temporarily move to the bullpen.
“That's something that you look at that one pitch [to McCann], and I don't want it to define the whole outing,” Hess said. “Unfortunately, when you look at a stat line, that's how it is, but looking at the first four and really trying to build off those first four innings is, going forward, the outlook that we want to have because we feel like that's where I am as a pitcher when I'm where I need to be.”
The Orioles came to Minnesota having served up 22 two-strike home runs, 37.3% of the 59 total they had allowed entering the series.
Those are the mistakes that hurt the most. Just ask Fry, a left-handed reliever.
On Opening Day, Fry got ahead 0-2 on the first batter he faced this season, New York Yankees first baseman Greg Bird, who had already struck out three times in the game. The left-on-left matchup did not end in the Orioles’ favor.
“I hung a slider and he took it deep,” Fry said. “Just being able to forget and learning how to execute that next pitch the next time that situation comes around, where you have two strikes on a guy and you know you wanna throw a swing-and-miss pitch instead of a right-down-the-middle pitch.”
Fry, 26 and in his second season in the majors, said perhaps the most important thing he’s learned about pitching at this level is the requirement to make pitch-by-pitch adjustments. In the minors, he could even afford to wait until his next outing before making tweaks. The big leagues do not offer the same forgiveness.
"Sometimes, you get away with that,” Fry said. “Sometimes, he pops it straight up, or sometimes, he swings right through it. But at this level, you've gotta be careful with that because guys are more consistent here. That's what we're trying to be, too, is more consistent every day. That's how you stay here, and that's also how you get sent down, sometimes, is when you're not consistent."
Fry has seemingly learned his lesson since the mistake to Bird. As other Orioles pitchers have repeatedly fallen victim to home runs, Bird remains the only batter to homer off Fry.
On Wednesday against Chicago, Hyde called upon Fry with two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning to face Delmonico, a left-handed batter. Fry’s 2-2 slider glanced the strike zone enough to get Delmonico to swing, but he could do nothing more than hit a grounder on the down-and-away pitch to end the threat. The Orioles won, 4-3, and claimed their first series victory at home.
Repeated appearances such as that, Fry said, help boost confidence for the next high-leverage situation.
“It just helps when you do make that pitch you know that you have the ability and your confidence just soars after that,” Fry said. “You know your stuff plays and things get easier because the game is slower and you know that you have it in you to be able to do that.
“Confidence is always key.”
Perhaps no Orioles pitcher has seen his confidence soar this season more than Means.
The left-hander came to spring training as a long shot to make the roster. Once aboard, he has given no reason to come off it. In his first appearance, he carved through a righty-heavy Yankees lineup. Starting against Chicago on Wednesday, his 26th birthday, Means lowered his ERA to a team-best 1.74 with five innings of one-run ball as he learns to pitch at this level.
"It's definitely a little different just because once you get through an order, there's no weak spots,” Means said. “There's no gimmes. As you get through it, you know that you can't give in at any point. That's the biggest difference. You have to, even when you're down 2-0 or 3-1, you can't give in. You can't give them a pitch to hit. You can't just throw a get-me-over."
The key to his growth has been development of his changeup. He’s thrown the pitch 34 percent of the time, the third most of any pitcher who has thrown at least 300 pitches this season. It’s been effective, too; opponents are 5-for-37 against Means’ changeup, and that .135 average is the third best of any pitcher who has ended at least 30 at-bats with the pitch.
But it hasn’t been perfect. In Means’ first career start, April 9 against the Oakland Athletics, he hovered a 2-2 changeup in the strike zone, and Marcus Semien crushed a three-run homer. The shot followed a series of infield hits and errors and came on Means’ 30th pitch of the second inning.
“It's giving in,” Means said. “It was a long inning and I gave him a gimme even though there was two strikes then. It was just one of those hangers that I just left over the plate.
"That outing, I felt really good except for that one pitch.”
Means learned his lesson. In his next start, with advice from Brocail, Means didn’t feel forced to come in with a 3-1 pitch to right-handed veteran Eduardo Núñez and instead walked him to face left-handed-hitting 22-year-old Rafael Devers, who grounded out on a changeup.
"I've actually never done that where I kinda pitch around a guy,” Means said. “You don't do that in the minors.”
In 17 innings since that A’s outing, he’s held opponents to three runs, with them hitting .053 off his changeup, again the third best in baseball in that span among pitchers who have ended at least 10 at-bats with a changeup.
Hyde is seeking more approaches like Means’ from his pitchers. He wants to see them navigate lineups and be willing to move on to not only the next pitch but also the next batter. Means, to this point, has served as a template for the balance of growth and production Hyde wants, and it’s why he’s earned a more permanent place in the Orioles rotation.
“Hopefully, he's just gonna build off those experiences and continue to grow and be confident,” Hyde said. “We're looking for other guys to feel the same way."