I’ve only watched one Baltimore Orioles major league game since May 2nd, but the nightly frustrations on social media remind me that things aren’t going very well for the big league Birds right now. A quick check on FanGraphs tells me that Orioles starting pitching currently ranks 22nd in combined Wins Above Replacement (2.1 fWAR), with John Means already accumulating 1.8 fWAR, more than half way to surpassing his All-Star rookie season total of 3.0 fWAR. John Means good, rest of the pitching staff bad. Does that sum it up?
It’s been a completely different story watching the Baby Birds down on the Baltimore Orioles farm. The Bowie Baysox enter play on May 25th with the top record in the Double-A Northeast (as I scream “Eastern League” internally) at 13-4, the Aberdeen Ironbirds sit atop the High-A East North Division (ok, this is ridiculous) with a mark of 11-7, and the Delmarva Shorebirds are torching their way through the Low-A East league with a 13-5 record and a +59 run differential, sitting in a three-way tie for the top overall record.
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It hasn’t been as great of a season for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides but a large amount of roster turnover and an Injured List currently composed of Yusniel Diaz and Jahmai Jones hasn’t helped things. The Tides are, however, coming off a Sunday afternoon win against Triple-A East leading Jacksonville behind six no-hit innings from minor league veteran Spenser Watkins. Maybe, just maybe, it can provide a spark to a roster that will very soon feature both RHP Kyle Bradish and RHP Michael Baumann in the starting rotation.
Last week, I looked at the positive starts from the large group of former Angels prospects Mike Elias has recently acquired, with each pitcher discussed in that piece putting in a solid performance immediately after publishing.
This week, I want to highlight the pitching staff down in Bowie. Outside of Delmarva’s infield, this just might be the most enjoyable current crop of prospects to watch on a nightly basis down on the farm. Whatever Bowie pitching coach Justin Ramsey has been doing, it’s working very well and providing a glimmer of optimism about the future of pitching in Baltimore.
LHP DL Hall
Let’s start at the top of the rotation with DL Hall. One of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, Hall is off to a great start in Bowie and has shown his improved command and a real knack for keeping the ball on the ground this season.
Through four starts, Hall is 1-0 with a 2.81 ERA (2.15 xFIP), a 1.13 WHIP, and a .175 average against. He’s sat down 31 hitters via the strikeout across 16 innings (46.3 percent) and when opponents do make contact, Hall has been effective at producing a 56 percent groundball rate, resulting in plenty of perfectly timed double plays to wipe out the occasional walk or base hit. He’s also allowed just one home run up to this point, continuing a very promising trend of not surrendering very many home runs at any point during his career.
But what about the walks? Hall has heard the constant discussions about his command, and he isn’t a fan of it. His response? Just two walks in his 2021 debut (in the rain), no walks through five innings in start number two, and just two walks in his latest outing at Richmond.
Let’s talk about this third outing of the season for a moment, the one where he gave up five earned runs on four walks and four hits across 2.2 innings. Hall came out of the gates hot in that start, but a tight strike zone caused clear frustrations with Hall, even a few notable headshakes from Adley Rutschman, something he hasn’t been willing to show from behind the plate. It was a bad day for all parties involved, including Reading, but coming out in his next outing with four shutout innings and eight strikeouts shows me that I’m not worried about Hall’s ability to command the zone.
He’s touched 100 mph and has been sitting 95-97 mph with the fastball, a pitch that opponents are clearly struggling to pick up and barrel. It appears that 70 pitches is the mark the Orioles don’t want their young arms exceeding quite yet in the minor leagues, but Hall hasn’t really shown anything to make you think his stuff is going to deteriorate as he works deeper into outings later in the year. Even as he approached 70 pitches in his last start, Hall was throwing 96 mph on the stadium gun and snapping off deadly breaking balls like the final pitch in this sequence.
With Rutschman behind the plate and Hall learning to channel his emotionally charged demeanor on the mound, I don’t see the same DL Hall we saw in Frederick back in 2019. He’s a man on a clearly defined mission now and if you have watched him closely as he’s moved up the system, it isn’t hard to see his matured approach.
RHP Kyle Bradish
My On The Verge colleague Zach Spedden recently discussed RHP Kyle Bradish in more detail here, but I will just take a second to note that Bradish’s work in Bowie was nothing short of fantastic. A recent call-up to AAA Norfolk, Bradish leads all of minor league baseball with a 50% strikeout rate and he allowed no runs across 13.2 innings with a 0.88 WHIP and a .149 average against. The fastball is touching 97 mph, the hammer curve can be dropped in for a swinging strike or buried for a swing and miss almost at will, and he’s one of the most poised pitchers in this farm system.
Like Hall, many pointed to Bradish’s high walk numbers from 2019 and his ability to command the strike zone with his unique delivery. He walked just five in three starts with Bowie.
Here’s why I’m beginning to get even more excited about Kyle Bradish than I already am. He debuted in High-A back in 2019, skipping A- and A ball. He’s now a merit based promotion to AAA after just three AA starts in an organization that has made it very clear, you will be promoted once you show you’ve mastered the level you’re at. Bradish isn’t going to Norfolk to help a struggling team or because of an injury. He’s going because the Orioles view him as a near major league ready pitcher.
LHP Kevin Smith
Another new guy on the block in Birdland, Kevin Smith was acquired from the New York Mets last year in the Miguel Castro trade and is surprisingly beginning the season with Bowie. But with only around 130 professional innings under his belt, the former NYM Minor League Pitcher of the Year shouldn’t be in AA long if he continues to pitch as well as he has thus far.
Smith doesn’t have the high velocity numbers that Hall and Bradish bring to the table, but Smith does have good command and two solid secondary pitches in his slider and changeup. Overall, Smith owns a 1.38 ERA, a 31.5 percent strikeout rate (12.4 percent swinging-strike rate), and has produced a 50 percent ground ball rate. He’s thrown 4.2 shutout innings in two of his three starts (13 K, 3 BB in those starts) and even in his lone subpar outing, Smith allowed just one hit in 3.2 innings of work, but he did walk four and hit a batter.
But the stuff has looked a little better than what I was expecting now that he’s with the Orioles, with the changeup really standing out as a solid offering. The slider is also an extremely uncomfortable pitch for left-handed hitters, with his sweeping delivery adding to the deception. If he can show success against RHH with that pitch and his high-spin fastball can continue to be effective, Smith can be a major league contributor. Smith has quietly flown under the radar so far this season, but a quick reminder that he is ranked as the 16th-best prospect in a top five farm system and ranks behind only Grayson Rodriguez, Hall, Zac Lowther, Baumann, and Bradish as far as pitchers go.
RHP Ofelky Peralta
He did it again. Ofelky Peralta has lured me in with a few impressive early season performances and I’m not mad about it. Peralta has spent the last three seasons working between full-season A ball and High-A ball, but he just turned 24 years old and Mike Elias has kept him around as he’s curated these minor league rosters. Clearly, the organization still believes in him. Personally, I’d love to see the Orioles use him as a high-leverage, late-inning reliever to see how much his upper-90s fastball can play up out of the pen, but Peralta has shown that he’s not quite ready for a move to the bullpen.
His first outing was a classic Peralta outing, a number of ups and downs as he gave up two runs and walked three across four innings, feeding the idea that a move to the ‘pen may serve him best after watching his stuff play extremely well in short sprints before really tailing off.
But Peralta has since appeared in two games, going four innings in both outings with one earned run allowed and 14 strikeouts to just three walks. His raw stuff has never been questioned, but he’s been unable to remain healthy and put everything together. After watching his first few outings of 2021, it appears that he has indeed started to put everything together, including his big curveball that has left a few hitters stunned in place already. Developing Peralta into a viable option, even if it is a bullpen option, would be a big win for this player development staff. Watch him closely as the season progresses.
Notable bullpen arms
There are a few other arms I wanted to note on this Bowie roster to highlight the eye-opening work being done by the staff.
On Saturday night I had the pleasure of watching RHP David Lebron live for the first time and it was a much more enjoyable experience than what I was anticipating. Lebron tossed five scoreless innings, striking out six and walking one. He now owns a 2.70 ERA through 10 innings with a 34 percent strikeout rate and a Double-A Northeast-leading 23.7 percent swinging-strike rate (min. 10 IP). The walk total may be a bit high right now but his big increase in swings and misses is notable.
There’s also LHP Nick Vespi who has seemed to have found a home as a late-inning reliever for Bowie. Vespi has appeared in six games, posting a 2.61 ERA (1.36 FIP), a 41% strikeout rate, a 0.77 WHIP, and a .139 average against. He ranks second behind Lebron with a 23.4 percent swinging strike rate. Vespi has some deception in his delivery from the left side and the stuff is really playing up in shorter stints. Vespi is able to pound the strike zone with swings and misses to get ahead in the count and then put hitters away with changeups and sliders out of the zone. The result has been a large number of awkward and down right ugly swings. It’s also important to note that Vespi isn’t just a random reliever having a string of good luck to start the season. He was once a starting pitching prospect with some promise, but needed some work to shore up his command and third/fourth offerings to really stick as a starter. Now, he’s a fringe Top 30 prospect who is able to use his strengths out of the bullpen.
Last, but not least, Cody Sedlock. The former first-round pick is back in Bowie after a decent 2019 put him slightly back on the radar and his work as a bullpen arm has been promising. Sedlock gave up three runs on six hits and failed to make it out of the first inning in his 2021 debut, but that might have been the result of an expected start for Sedlock seeing as Brenan Hanifee was the scheduled starter that day right up until gameday.
Sedlock was better in his second start, giving up three runs and walking three across four innings, but he allowed just two hits and struck out five. This past weekend in Richmond, Sedlock relieved Lebron and threw three scoreless innings, striking out three and allowing one hit and two walks. His 94-95 mph fastball looked strong as he mixed in offspeed and breaking stuff to keep hitters off balanced. It was one of his better outings of the last two years, in my opinion. No one is expecting Sedlock to live up to the hype that surrounded him as a first-round pick, but he’s another example of a veteran arm coming out of the gates strong in Bowie.
Not all of these arms are going to pan out, and odds are a few may end up struggling to get through the 2021 season, but we’re three weeks into the minor league season and if you look across the Double-A leaderboards, you see a lot of Bowie Baysox pitchers and a number of veteran arms unwilling to just roll over as more high-profile pitching talent comes up through the pipeline.
I’m not calling anyone the “calvary” and I’m not saying Baltimore’s pitching problems are going to be solved in the next year or so, but I am suggesting that when we sit back and watch this Bowie staff work, we’re looking at another example of a big shift within the organization and the continued erasing of this narrative that Baltimore is unable to develop pitchers. No prospect is a sure thing, but take any pessimism elsewhere, because the Baby Birds are rolling and the rest of the league is quickly taking notice.
A former high school teacher and coach in the mountains of Virginia, Nick Stevens has been writing about the Baltimore Orioles and their minor league system for five years. When he isn’t at a minor league stadium, he’s enjoying a Wizards game or supporting his alma mater, James Madison University. Co-Host of The Verge.