In a year in which a few Orioles pitchers have excelled on the farm there are more than a few contenders for the Jim Palmer award, which goes to the minor league Pitcher of the Year in the O’s system.
Just to name several in no particular order, there are Keegan Akin, DL Hall, Michael Baumann, Brenan Hanifee, Cameron Bishop, John Means and even the defending winner from 2017, Alex Wells, who pitched in the All-Star Futures Game.
Those pitchers have been solid. But 22-year-old lefty Zac Lowther, drafted just last year, has a very strong case as well. After his latest strong outing last night, he is 7-3 with a 2.11 ERA this year between Single-A Delmarva and Single-A Frederick. Over 106 2/3 innings, Lowther has allowed 76 hits with 33 walks, 134 strikeouts and a 1.02 WHIP. He is averaging 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
He leads all O’s farmhands among qualifying pitchers in ERA and strikeouts. He went 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA to start the year in six Delmarva starts, with 51 strikeouts in 31 innings. After throwing seven scoreless for Frederick last night, he is 4-2 with a 2.50 ERA in 14 starts for the Keys.
Lowther has had this success without a blazing fastball. He throws between 88 and 93 mph, sitting often at 89-90, with a slider and changeup that can both flash above average. He was taken with the No. 74 overall pick in Competitive Balance Round B in the draft in 2017 out of Xavier, where he led the Big East conference in strikeouts last year. He also led the Cape Cod summer league in strikeouts in 2016. Getting swings and misses has not been a problem for the southpaw.
How is a pitcher topping out at 92 and 93 throwing the ball by so many hitters?
“He has this deception on his fastball,” said Frederick manager Ryan Minor. “He hides the ball and has some late life and run to his fastball. His ability to throw strikes is big. He works in to righties a lot, and that is huge for any lefty. Then he throws his breaking ball and changeup to get them off his fastball. He’s been pitching primarily off his fastball. Some guys have that late hop on the ball, and he has that.
“He uses his fastball so much and he’ll throw that breaking ball up there like a backdoor slider to a righty batter, and he’ll swing over it like it’s a fastball. That is where he gets a lot of his swings and misses, on a slider following a fastball. He’s been impressive.”
He sure has. Lowther has already been named the Orioles minor league Pitcher of the Month for both April and June. He is rated as the Orioles No. 17 prospect by Baseball America and No. 18 by MLBPipeline.com.
Former big league pitcher Blaine Beatty is the pitching coach at Frederick. He believes the deception for Lowther was nothing taught, but comes naturally with his delivery.
“No, I don’t think it is something you can teach. I think it is something you are gifted with. I think you can create some deception by closing off and hiding the ball, or different arm angles. But with him, it’s very obvious that you see hitters that don’t take good swings on him,” Beatty said.
Beatty said Lowther throws a very high percentage of hard stuff.
“This guy loves to pitch with his fastball,” he said. “His ability to pitch in allows him to pitch away later in the game with some softer stuff. Here’s a guy that just trusts his ability to locate. He will predominantly throw fastballs, and we are preaching here the ability to command the fastball. When you see hitters start making the adjustment to that fastball, you break out the other stuff.”
Lowther pitched to an ERA of 0.71 in his first five Frederick starts after he moved up from Delmarva May 28. Then he had a four-start stretch in July with an ERA of 6.63. But now he has followed that with a run of five starts with a 1.44 ERA. In that stretch he has thrown 31 1/3 innings, allowing 21 hits and five earned runs with eight walks and 34 strikeouts.
“This guy is really locked in,” Beatty added. “He brings a really good curveball, a really good changeup and he likes to pitch in with his fastball. And he just has really good depth and movement on his pitches. The deception works for him. Even when he gets to the middle part of the plate, you see hitters don’t have really good swings on his fastball. Hitters are under it most of the time and he has good, late life. But deception plays in a lot in what he brings to the table, plus the solid quality of his pitches. He’s another pitcher that challenges hitters with his stuff, and I like that about him.”
There is a lot to like about Lowther, a very energetic young pitcher. He loves to talk pitching and soak up knowledge. He’s won two Orioles monthly honors this season. Come next month he could be in line for an even bigger honor.