When left-hander Alex Wells had solid stats last year at Single-A Frederick but was not as dominant as he was the previous season at Single-A Delmarva, you had to wonder if some of his doubters would be proven right.
The lefty without the big fastball would have it tougher as he moved up the Orioles’ minor league ladder. Surely hitters would figure him out with more frequency as he got closer to the majors.
Then came the 2019 season. The 22-year-old from Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia has put up stunning statistics at Double-A Bowie this year. He’s having a Pitcher-of-the-Year type of season. If he does win the Jim Palmer Award in September he’ll need to make room for it next to the one he earned in 2017, when he walked 10 batters in 140 innings for the season with Delmarva.
He’s proving to be much more than a soft-tossing strike-thrower. And his name peppers the Double-A Eastern League leaderboard. In 16 starts for Bowie, Wells is 8-1 with a 1.83 ERA. He’s allowed 75 hits and just two home runs in 93 2/3 innings. He averages 1.7 walks and 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
Not bad for a pitcher ranked No. 16 on Baseball America’s new list of the Orioles’ top 30 prospects, with nine pitchers ranked ahead of him. He is No. 25 on the MLBPipeline.com list, with 13 pitchers ranked ahead of him.
All those pitchers would love to have his stats. Wells has allowed two runs or fewer in 13 of 16 starts, and in each of the three he failed to do that, he allowed a season-high three runs. He’s thrown seven or more innings six times and made scoreless starts four times. He leads the Eastern League in ERA, WHIP and winning percentage and is fourth in average against.
For Bowie pitching coach Kennie Steenstra, the real test came as Wells went around the league the second and third time.
“One thing I was concerned about was when he started facing teams multiple times. Would he keep getting good results? So far he has,” said Steenstra.
The third time Wells faced Akron he threw seven scoreless innings. The second time versus Erie he threw seven scoreless. The third time against Hartford he gave up two runs in six. The third time against Harrisburg he threw eight innings while allowing two runs.
“Wells is a guy that has had to prove himself at every level without a blow-it-by-you fastball,” said Bowie manager Buck Britton. “But this kid can pitch, and he’s fearless. He is not afraid to throw a 90 mph fastball inside and he’s got a big breaking ball to keep hitters off balance, and he’s working on a slider that has come a long way and helps him against lefty hitters.”
Oh yeah, he’s added a fourth pitch this year and hasn’t missed a beat.
“I’ve added a slider early on this year,” Wells said. “Stuck with it and have had some pretty good success with it so far. I had never thrown a slider before - this is the first year I’ve used it. Myself and (Orioles coordinator of minor league pitching) Chris Holt talked about it in spring. Add that fourth pitch and give the hitters a different look to a lefty and even to a righty. I didn’t have full confidence with it at first. But I kept trusting it and worked on it, and now I have full confidence with it in games. I’ve noticed when I mix it in, hitters are less aggressive on my fastball. I can use it in any count and it’s been a good pitch for me.”
Just another weapon for a pitcher with a fastball that ranges from 87 to 91 mph who also throws a curveball and changeup.
Once again Wells is having a season with big stats without a big fastball. If he can do this at the Double-A level, maybe a chance in Baltimore is in his future.
“Well, when you stand in on him as a hitter - and I’ve stood in there before, during his bullpens - he’s got some sneakiness to him. He kind of hides the ball for a little deception, and for whatever reason (the ball) just seems to get on guys a little bit,” said Steenstra.
“We’ve all seen pitchers that get a label on them early that the stuff is not good enough. And they have to prove themselves at each level. Ultimately, all pitchers do.”
Wells is sure proving himself this year. He was an Eastern League All-Star and the Orioles Minor League Pitcher of the Month for June, when he went 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA in five starts. And he’s been better in July, going 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA in four outings.
“I’ve definitely made some adjustments this year,” said Wells. “I’m reading guys’ swings a lot better this season, and that has been a big thing for me. Checking out heat maps on the opposition and reading that pretty well. And then just trusting my stuff, trusting my pitches and attacking the strike zone like I always have.”
The Orioles signed the 22-year-old lefty out of Australia for $300,000 in August 2015. He has been a mid-season All-Star at four different levels and pitched in the 2018 All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park.
He’s no longer a surprise after pitching to ERAs of 2.15 at short-season Single-A Aberdeen, 2.38 at Delmarva and 3.47 with Single-A Frederick last season.
But maybe the surprise is that he fills up the stat sheet while not lighting up any radar guns.
“I’m not really worried about that and don’t read anything into those (scouting) reports,” he said. “Knowing I don’t throw harder than some guys, I just go out and pitch the game that has been successful for me in the past. If I need to add some velocity here or there, it could be a thing I look to in the offseason. But at the moment, I’m happy throwing 88 to 91 with location and pitching with my off-speed off my fastball. I just want to keep putting consistent starts together and help this team make a run to the playoffs.”
And in a rotation that includes Zac Lowther, Bruce Zimmermann, Dean Kremer and Michael Baumann, Wells still stands out. This group might be the next wave of prospect pitchers to try to help the big club.
“It’s very exciting. We’ve got a good group of guys here that are all working to pitch for Baltimore. Hopefully, we carry this up through the ranks and one day are pitching at Camden Yards together. We talk about that sometimes. But we try not to let it get to us too much, because while we are a phone call away, we also have to keep pitching well here to move up,” said Wells.
Baysox with near no-hitter and double shutouts: The great Bowie pitching was on display last night in a doubleheader the Baysox swept by scores of 5-0 and 2-0 at Richmond.
In the second game - played in just seven innings because it was part of a doubleheader - Bowie was one out away from a second no-hitter in six days. But a single ended that bid, and Bowie settled for a combined one-hitter in the nightcap win. Making his first Double-A start, right-hander Cody Sedlock threw five scoreless innings. He has thrown eight scoreless in two Double-A games. Christian Alvarado went the final two innings.
In the opener, Zimmermann threw a complete-game five-hitter over seven frames on 84 pitches. He is now 5-3 with a 2.58 ERA after recording his fifth scoreless start.
Bowie pitchers now rank 1-2-3 in the Eastern League in ERA, with Wells at 1.83, Zimmermann at 2.58 and Lowther at 2.64.
Bowie is 16-4 in July, 25-7 and in first place in the second half and 36-11 since June 1. The Baysox started the year at 7-23 (.233) and are 48-22 (.686) since then.