Talk about flying under the radar. He finished fourth in the South Atlantic League in ERA and second among qualifying Orioles minor league pitchers. Yet while higher-drafted players and/or pitchers that got promoted this season got more attention, he just kept cranking out solid starts.
If you mention the Orioles top pitching prospects, you might leave him off your list but you definitely should not. At 20, right-hander Brenan Hanifee went 8-6 with a 2.86 ERA for Single-A Delmarva. Over 23 starts, he pitched 132 innings, allowing 120 hits and just eight homers with 22 walks, with 85 strikeouts and a .244 batting average against.
His walk rate was 1.50 per nine innings and he recorded 11 quality starts in his first 16 outings. The only reason he didn’t add to that total was the Orioles held his last seven starts to five innings each.
It was the first year of full season ball for the Orioles’ fourth-round pick in 2016 out of Turner Ashby High School in Bridgewater, Va.
On a team that featured a few pitching prospects in 2018, Hanifee held his own with all of them. He was remarkably consistent with an ERA of 2.91 in the first half and 2.81 in the second half. Lefties hit .256 off him and right-handers .234. His ERA ranged between 2.31 and 2.77 in four of the five months he pitched.
“He is very mature from the standpoint of he’s very receptive to learning and putting in the work that it takes to get better,” said Delmarva pitching coach Justin Lord. “Very deliberate about his routines between outings and always working on his command and pitching at the bottom of the zone.”
Hanifee relies heavily on a sinker between 91 and 94 mph, and on the nights he tops at 93 and 94mph, he seems to hold that velocity for long stretches. He also throws a slider and changeup, and helped Delmarva to a 68-66 record and a team ERA of 3.39 that ranked third-best in the league.
“He will show above-average movement on his two-seam sinker and he’s really begun to develop a changeup that is coming along well and complements that sinker.,” Lord said. “He’s been a workhorse. He has that ability to get two outs with one pitch if a runner is on base. He’s a big, strong, young kid that is mature for his age and has a really bright future.”
At times, Hanifee was a groundball machine. His groundball rate was 54.5 percent for the Shorebirds. Houston’s Dallas Keuchel leads qualifying American League starters this year at 54 percent.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” said Lord. “When he is keeping that sinker down in the zone, he gets a lot of swings and misses from right-handed hitters and a lot of weak ground balls. And his changeup is coming along to complement that. As his confidence increases with that pitch, it will be a big asset for him.”
But beyond the sinker and impressive groundball rates, the consistency for a young pitcher of just 20 gets your attention.
“If you look at his innings per start, you can see we limited him some in the last few starts,” Lord said. “But he had starts earlier in the year where he went seven and eight innings. He’s a pitcher that gets stronger as he goes. The feel gets a little bit better and he gets better as the game goes along. He had a game at Hickory where he gave up two runs in the first inning and ended up at seven innings with less than 90 pitches. He really was bearing down and got that sinker going. He has the ability to be very efficient.
“He really made it a point to work on his secondary stuff this year - the slider and changeup - and it has really paid off. I think those pitches will continue to progress.”
Hanifee averaged just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings for Delmarva and had a similar mark last year for short-season Single-A Aberdeen. Will he have a low strikeout rate profile going forward and could that be a concern?
“That can be the case,” Lord said. “It’s hard to predict the future, but I have a feeling, if I had to guess, that his strikeouts will potentially increase as his secondary stuff gets better. Because he will be able to keep hitters off-balance a little more. Now he works hard to get ground balls, but I think the strikeouts could increase moving forward.
“His second-to-last game against Greensboro, that might be the best stuff I’ve seen from him all year. He threw 54 pitches in five innings and threw 41 strikes. When you only throw 54 pitches, that is about less than half what you might throw in a normal start. Less chances to throw your pitches. But as he gets even more innings next year, he’ll have more chances to develop his already good stuff.”