His last start of an outstanding 2019 season never made it into his final season stats. That’s because it was a postseason start. But in a season when right-hander Gray Fenter reminded the organization why he got an overslot draft bonus, it was a gem.
In a best-of-three South Atlantic League playoff series against Hickory last September, Single-A Delmarva faced a must-win Game 2. Fenter pitched 6 1/3 scoreless on four hits with no walks and 13 strikeouts. He was dominant, but the Shorebirds couldn’t score and saw their season end in a 1-0 loss.
Fenter was the O’s seventh-round pick in 2015 and was signed to a $1 million bonus that was well above the figure allotted for that slot. But he underwent Tommy John surgery on April 7, 2016. He didn’t pitch at all that year and was limited to 114 innings over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, pitching to a 4.66 ERA.
But he re-emerged as a prospect to watch with a big 2019 season for Delmarva, going 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA. That ERA led all O’s minor leaguers who threw 90 or more innings. In 94 1/3 he gave up 61 hits, walked 43 and fanned 123 with a .185 average against and 1.10 WHIP. His 11.73 strikeout rate was a career best.
Fenter was a standout even on a Delmarva staff that included Grayson Rodriguez and led the league in ERA while setting a league team strikeout record.
“It was a great environment,” Fenter said of pitching for the 2019 Shorebirds. “Everyone wanted the person next to them to do as well as they did. You learn a lot that way. You get coaches in there that know what they are talking about and can help you make adjustments on the fly. That really helps. It was a real good year. I hope to take it and learn from it and get better. Hopefully it will lead me on the right path where I need to be.”
I interviewed Fenter in Florida at Twin Lakes Park before the baseball shutdown. As he looked ahead then to the 2020 season, he spoke of the excitement in the organization among the minor league pitchers.
“There’s some excitement here. It’s fun,” he said. “Something to look forward to, especially in spring when spring is monotonous since it’s the same thing every day for 30 days. Definitely something to look forward to and something to work towards, rather than just throwing on a back field.”
Baseball America ranked Fenter as the club’s No. 24 prospect at the end of the 2015 season. He fell off the radar a bit after his surgery in early 2016. It was a long road back, but after his 2019 success he is No. 21 on the club’s top 30 by Baseball America and No. 29 by MLBPipeline.com.
Fenter was Rule 5-eligible last December and went unprotected by the Orioles. They didn’t expect a team to take a pitcher from Low-A ball and none did. So after his big year, Fenter remains an Oriole and the 2020 season would be already his sixth in the organization.
His manager with Delmarva last season was Kyle Moore.
“His fastball is plus, it’s in the 95-plus range and has big-time backspin on it, so it’s a swing-and-miss pitch,” said Moore. “His curveball is his best pitch, kind of what I would call a hammer curveball. Kind of straight down, like 12 to 6 with big-time spin on it. Those two pitches alone allow him to survive.
“He’s developing the other two: a changeup and slider. We would always remind him to throw those pitches and he did a great job of owning it and throwing the pitches. Next thing you know, his slider showed up and then he had three (plus pitches). He was special. That slider never got squared up. He has weapons and he definitely has the stuff to go get outs.”
Fenter told me that coming back after Tommy John surgery taught him life lessons about overcoming adversity. Then under pitching coach Justin Ramsey last summer he learned a lot about the data-and-analytics side of pitching, and that improved his game.
If and when we get baseball back, he should find his way into the rotation at Single-A Frederick. At 24, maybe the club will move him faster now that has a full season healthy under his belt.
Battling his way back helped him put baseball in better perspective, he said, and being unable to pitch for an extended period reminded him how much he loves the game.
“There is more to life than baseball, but life is a lot more fun when you’re playing baseball well,” Fenter said.
Checking the stats: Here is another look at some Orioles all-time stats. For today, it’s a ranking of the 15 players in O’s history with a career OPS for the club of .820 or more. For this rating, I went with a minimum of 1,000 plate appearances for the club.
.944 - Frank Robinson
.891 - Jim Gentile
.886 - Rafael Palmeiro
.883 - Bob Nieman
.882 - Albert Belle
.881 - Harold Baines
.868 - Eddie Murray
.862 - Roberto Alomar
.836 - Miguel Tejada
.833 - Chris Hoiles and Ken Singleton
.826 - Boog Powell and Luke Scott
.824 - John Lowenstein
.822 - Manny Machado