Orioles left-handed pitching prospect Alex Wells of the Single-A Frederick Keys had such elite command and control last year that it was almost a given that he could not duplicate that this season in moving up from the South Atlantic League to the Carolina League. But for the most part, he’s handled the move up well, albeit with a couple of recent bumps in the road.
But a road that has taken him from Newcastle, South Wales, Australia to the Orioles will take the 21-year-old Wells to the All-Star Futures Game tomorrow at Nationals Park. It is quite an achievement for Wells, who does not posses a blazing fastball. But he will proudly represent the Orioles and his home country on the World team roster come Sunday.
When I spoke with him a few days ago in Frederick, he admitted he was still a bit overwhelmed to get the Futures Game spot.
“I was in shock,” Wells said. “I was on a bus ride down to Carolina and (Frederick manager) Ryan Minor came up and told me. It was a shock and I just wanted to tell my family. They are my biggest supporters. It’s still a shock. It’s still setting in. It’s going to be awesome. It will be another challenge facing the best guys in the minor leagues. It’s going to be fun. I hope to get an inning.”
Wells didn’t even discover baseball in Australia until he was 9. He later pitched on some Australian national teams and got noticed by scouts, including those from the Orioles. He was signed by Brett Ward and Mike Snyder to a $300,000 bonus in August 2015 as an international amateur.
In his first year of full-season ball in 2017 at Single-A Delmarva, Wells went 11-5 with a league-leading 2.38 ERA and was the Orioles’ minor league Pitcher of the Year, winning the Jim Palmer Award. What jumped out most on the stat sheet was just 10 walks with 113 strikeouts over 140 innings. Remarkably, he didn’t walk a batter over his last 68 innings and walked just two in the last 98 1/3 frames.
Wells needs to locate and the keep the ball down to be effective and he’s very capable of that as South Atlantic League hitters found out. He throws his fastball between 87-91 mph along with a curve and changeup, with the change probably a tick ahead as his best secondary pitch.
Moving up to Frederick this season and pitching in such a hitter-friendly ballpark have presented the expected challenges. Wells’ ERA was 3.29 until he gave up 11 runs in 8 1/3 innings over his past two starts. For the season, he is 3-6 with a 4.13 ERA. Over 85 innings, he’s allowed 95 hits with 26 walks, 59 strikeouts and a .294 average against.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, moving up and seeing better hitters,” said Wells. “I’ve taken it in every day, learning every day, and it’s been fun. Just been trying to establish the fastball just like in Delmarva last year. Establish that and it helps a lot. Trying to keep my pitch count down, get ground balls and trying to be repetitive with my delivery.”
Last year, Wells averaged 0.64 walks per nine innings with 7.26 strikeouts and had a WHIP of 0.91. This year, he’s averaging 2.67 walks, 6.22 strikeouts and with a WHIP of 1.43.
“I’ve walked a few more guys than I would have liked to at this point of the season. But trying to keep pounding the zone and keep guys off base,” Wells said.
Frederick pitching coach Blaine Beatty sees in Wells a hurler with some real pitchability and one who is a real student of the game.
“The thing that he brings to the table is his consistency to go out and compete and to use all his pitches,” Beatty said. “His ability to pitch in has gotten a lot better. I think he had some success (in past years) getting guys swinging at pitches sometimes out of the zone and his ability to be more consistent to the bottom of the zone is what he’s really been working on here. He’s a guy that has really good command but just needs to find the bottom of the zone more consistently.”
To give Wells another weapon, Beatty said the pitcher has started to throw a two-seam fastball this year.
“He was basically a four-seam pitcher and we’re just trying to create some movement to armside and down and away to righties,” Beatty said.
Minor was Wells’ manager last season with Delmarva and again this season in Frederick. He sees a pitcher learning what it takes to get hitters out as he moves up the minor league ladder.
“He is having to make some adjustments against some older hitters in this league,” Minor said. “The big thing for him is the fastball command. In Delmarva, he may have gotten away with stuff up in the zone. Here, he really has to pitch, making sure he’s got his breaking ball working for him and using his changeup more. In this ballpark, balls can get to the wall real quick. He is making adjustments and needs to become more consistent working down in the zone. Overall this season, he has continued to progress and get to where he needs to be.”
Wells said he is proud to represent Australia in the Futures Game and one day hopes to take it further than that.
“One of my goals is to make Australia proud and hopefully be the next Australian big leaguer. To represent the Australian baseball community is awesome,” Wells said.
The Orioles’ other rep in tomorrow’s game is Double-A Bowie third baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who will play for Team USA. In 59 Bowie games, Mountcastle is batting .314/.365/.505 with 12 doubles, three triples, eight homers, 30 runs, 38 RBIs and an OPS of .869.
The Orioles asked him to draw more walks and he has. He had 17 in 127 games last season and has 17 already this year. A walk rate that was just 1.9 in 2017 is now 6.7. Mountcastle went 0-for-3 last night, but has hit .393 his last 21 games.
Mountcastle was rated as a top 100 prospect in winter rankings leading into this season. He was No. 65 by Baseball Prospectus, No. 71 by Baseball America and No. 98 by MLBPipeline.com. In current rankings, he moved up to No. 26 in Baseball Prospectus’ mid-year ratings. On the latest Baseball America list he is No. 63 and he’s No. 80 on MLBPipeline.com.