The Orioles added Frederick, Md., native Branden Kline to their 40-man roster on Oct. 30 and it was pretty much a no brainer. They added a young pitcher with a big arm who was once one of their top draft picks.
Kline returned strong this year after three seasons from 2015-2017 that were impacted by his Tommy John surgery in the fall of 2015 and complications after the procedure.
Kline made eight starts to begin the 2015 season for Double-A Bowie, but didn’t pitch after late May, and his elbow ligament replacement surgery came in October. He would not pitch in a game at all in 2016 and 2017.
But he returned this year and was good almost from the start. The club was conservative with him after missing nearly three full seasons, he began the year in the Single-A Frederick bullpen and moved to Double-A in late May. Between the two teams, Kline went 5-4 with a 1.64 ERA in 44 games. In 32 games for the Baysox, he went 4-4 with a 1.80 ERA and 15 saves in 16 chances. Showing a fastball that touched the high 90s, he pitched 45 innings, allowing 32 hits with 15 walks, 48 strikeouts and a .199 average against. It was a strong performance in both the Carolina League and the Eastern League.
While that blazing fastball returned for Kline, to hear him tell it, a strong changeup was the real difference maker.
The pitch was a factor that allowed him to give up an impressive .129/.194/.200. slash against Double-A left-handed hitters. That is a dominant pitch, and while he allowed an OPS of .730 versus right-handed batters in the Eastern League, that number was .394 against lefty batters. Dominant, indeed.
The story behind Kline perfecting the changeup is a good one. He learned the changeup grip he used this year from someone that was never his pitching coach and he learned the grip during the 2016 season, which began a two-year stretch where he didn’t throw in a single game.
The grip was shown to him by former big leaguer Wilson Alvarez, who threw a no-hitter for the White Sox against the Orioles on Aug. 11, 1991 for his first major league win. Alvarez has been the pitching coach for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles for the past six seasons.
“I got hurt in 2015 and he taught me the grip in 2016,” said Kline. “But the issue was, I always remembered the grip, but in 2017 I had those complications. Right about the time I was getting into throwing live BPs, I was throwing almost all fastballs and then eventually I was shut down. But earlier this year, I was able to finally get back to it. Once I played around with it a little more and just threw it, it just took off. That was a huge pitch for me this past season.”
Kline, drafted by the Orioles in round two in 2012 out of the University of Virginia, said there were a few factors that made his changeup so strong in 2018.
“The two things that made it good were one, it has the same spin as my fastball. So coming out with the same arm action, (out of) the same window, the spin of the ball looks exactly the same,” he said. “Talking to our hitters, the first thing where they can pick up whether it’s a fastball, curveball or changeup, is the spin. If you can get a pitch to look exactly like a fastball, it can help you put the odds in your favor. It looked like my fastball, but wasn’t and that was huge.
“The second thing was the fact that is was usually anywhere from six to 10 miles per hour slower. Then it turns into a guessing game for the hitter. Once again, that puts more odds in my favor in certain situations. I’m throwing something that looks exactly like my fastball but is significantly slower. If a guy is cheating to the fastball, he’s either going to miss it or you get weak contact. We had a great defense in Bowie and they made the plays.”
Kline not only proved he was healthy again, he got firmly back on the team’s radar and now has a 40-man roster spot to call his own. His fastball was impressive on the radar gun and will be an important pitch going forward. But his changeup allowed him to get those lefty hitters out and just may have been the final piece of the puzzle for Kline.