The Orioles had a pretty solid year on the farm in 2019. Orioles’ affiliates finished with a .517 win percentage, to rank 10th among all 30 Major League Baseball organizations. They sent two teams to the playoffs, three really, but the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League postseason was cancelled due to Hurricane Dorian. Baseball America rated the Orioles ninth in organizational rankings.
But it was on the pitching side where some special progress was made. Of the Orioles’ top six farm teams, four clubs led their leagues in ERA. That was at Double-A Bowie, Single-A Delmarva, short-season Single-A Aberdeen and in the GCL. And while it is true that Triple-A Norfolk and Single-A Frederick ranked last in their leagues in ERA, Norfolk’s pitchers did set a team record for strikeouts. Delmarva not only led its league in strikeouts but set a South Atlantic League record. Bowie posted the best WHIP (1.18) in the Eastern League since 2001.
The man that oversaw all that progress was first-year director of minor league pitching Chris Holt. On Oct. 11, Holt was promoted to director of pitching for the Orioles, which should allow him to have more impact in 2020 on the major league staff too.
All this happened while Holt was still getting to know players and coaches who were new to him. He was one of the first hires by new executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias last November after Elias got the job in Baltimore.
Not a bad first getting-to-know you year.
“Getting to know players and their strengths and weaknesses and assessing the situation, this year was largely about that process,” Holt said in a phone interview this week. “It takes time if you want to have meaningful work with guys. Trying to learn players is one of the most important things we can do as coaches. I wanted to make sure I took as much time as I could and asked those guys questions and make sure they know we care what makes sense to them first. Then they can understand what makes sense to us and then we go to work.”
And then the minor league pitchers went to work with the use of technology that was not new to baseball but was new to the Orioles. They used high-speed Edgertronic cameras that capture movement at 1,000 frames per second. Add to that TrackMan pitch tracking data and the Orioles were getting up to speed.
As Holt educated the O’s minor league pitchers on how they would use the technology in spring training, he found some very willing-to-learn players.
I wrote this story during spring training about what was coming with Holt on the farm.
“A lot of knowledge has been shared with us and they are setting the groundwork for years to come. Just to be able to understand the way baseball is going now,” pitcher Zac Lowther told me then at Twin Lakes Park.
That the pitchers were eager to learn how to use technology and analytics to get better pleased Holt.
“Honestly, because this stuff is kind of commonplace now, they were probably wondering where it had been for a couple of years,” Holt said. “When we first started doing this stuff in ‘14 and ‘15 back in Houston, this was before anyone knew about this, and you had a group of players and coaches that didn’t want anything to do with the stuff and didn’t know how to feel about what we were working with. All of the sudden now, fast forward to 2019, guys are ready for it. This isn’t even a special thing anymore. Every organization is using tools such as these. The players are ready for it.”
Holt himself had been very willing to learn about the technology that Houston would use as far back as 2014.
“I was eager to learn as much as I could,” he said. “The whole purpose of using these feedback mechanisms or these feedback devices is to be a more accurate coach. Give the players more accurate information. What more could you want?
“We are able to use high-speed cameras when pitchers throw their bullpens. So sometimes pitchers will have access to a clip of their previous pitch during bullpens and get feedback on how well they are spinning the baseball for a particular pitch, relative to a change they may be trying to make. Or consistency they are trying to get with a pitch that is already quite good. Then we have TrackMan information that gives us metrics on what the current state of their pitches are. So, when it comes to making improvements or something more consistent, we just have accurate feedback.”
One reason minor league pitchers might really take to the technology is that it can produce data points where they can compare themselves to major league pitchers, to check their spin rates and other factors against those of some of the best in the game. It gives them something to shoot for, something to strive for. And it is a way to very specifically measure results and show players the improvements they make.
“Of course. And it really is about the individual improvement and an individualized approach to development,” Holt said. “Blanket programs generally fail to account for a lot of things that players may have that make them special. I can think of guys I played with in the minors that may have had a really special breaking ball and the organization I was in was preaching you need to throw 85 or 90 percent fastballs.
“So, these days we know better. If a guy has a really special breaking ball, we’re going to ask him to throw it, instead of making him throw a bunch of fastballs. That is an example of, OK, he had this strength and has to develop these other things. We have a more accurate picture of where to put the work in. All we are really talking about is having a better plan for assessing and correcting and improving what it is that we are working with in development. The fact is that we have more accurate information to form development plans for players that are more substantive, more meaningful and more accurate in terms of the feedback we are able to provide for them.”
In 2018 the top six O’s affiliates produced one team (Delmarva was third) that finished in the top 10 in its league in strikeouts. This year five of six teams were in the top six, with Delmarva first and Aberdeen third.
The six O’s farm teams in 2018 combined for 5,289 strikeouts and a strikeout rate of 8.18 per every nine innings. This season those six clubs combined to fan 6,016 batters with a K rate of 9.26.
“It is encouraging to see strikeout numbers improve,” said Holt. “We made a nice jump in one year. That is good. But we know that pitching is more than strikeouts. But what that does tells us is that when we have guys striking players out, we have guys developing better stuff instead of just trying to learn how to pitch with mediocre stuff. And they are also attacking the zone. They are being more aggressive and developing more intent to attack hitters. Those two indications are, culturally, very, very important to what we are trying to build here.
“The strikeout numbers improving is great. Those things can fluctuate from year to year. But in a general sense, we have the red meat of what it is we are working to develop in place when we start to see the strikeout numbers improve.
“The other thing you see increase with that is walk rate with a lot of guys. Because they are throwing a lot of non-fastballs in fastball counts. So, learning how to command all their other pitches and throwing them in different counts, we’re going to walk more guys because that is just a byproduct of doing some of that work at the minor league level. I’d much rather have them doing it now than trying to figure that out at Triple-A or the big leagues.
“The bigger point here is, walk rates will increase at times when we are asking guys to throw all their pitches at higher rate instead of just throw a bunch of fastballs all the time.”
Strikeout rate by team on the farm, 2018 to 2019:
* Norfolk: 8.28 to 9.00
* Bowie: 8.21 to 8.60
* Frederick: 7.80 to 8.86
* Delmarva: 8.51 to 10.33
* Aberdeen: 8.40 to 9.72
* GCL: 7.71 to 9.24
Coming soon, more with Holt on other topics and he discusses several pitchers and their progress this season on the O’s farm.
Meanwhile, on the other coast: It looks like a former O’s coach is both moving up in the world in the coaching ranks and will have a reunion with Manny Machado.
Sources: The Padres are expected to hire Phillies infield coach Bobby Dickerson as their bench coach.-- AJ Cassavell (@AJCassavell) October 31, 2019
Prior to Philadelphia, Dickerson had spent a decade in the Orioles organization (and was on the big league staff for all of Manny Machado’s tenure there).