Will these minor league southpaws have major league success?

To say the least, Orioles minor league left-handed pitchers Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther have a lot in common. A lot.

They are close in age, with Wells 23 and Lowther just turned 24 on April 30. They were both non-roster invitee pitchers in O’s big league camp in Sarasota. Both have been named the Orioles’ Jim Palmer Award winner as Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Both excelled last year at Double-A Bowie.

And here is another one - both have some doubters as it relates to their big league futures, due to lower-velocity fastballs.

At a time when many pitchers seem to routinely hit the mid 90s, seeing lower-velocity pitchers succeed is getting rarer. But it does happen. The Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks went 11-10 with a 3.46 ERA and 1.13 WHIP last year. His career ERA is 3.14 with a WHIP of 1.11. And at a time when many pitchers are throwing fastballs 50 percent of the time or less, Hendricks threw his 62.2 percent in 2019. At an average velocity of 86.9 mph according to FanGraphs.com. Other pitchers that averaged at or below 90.5 mph last year include Mike Leake, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester and Clayton Kershaw.

So not every successful pitcher has to blow hitters away with premium velocity. A well located fastball and the ability to command your pitches can make you formidable without it.

You have to work with what you have. The Double-A level can be a separator for prospects. If you can do well there, the majors may be calling in your future.

Lowther 2568 1.jpgIn the Double-A Eastern League for Bowie last year, Lowther went 13-7 with a 2.55 ERA in 148 innings. He led the league in wins and strikeouts and was second in ERA, just missing out on a pitcher Triple Crown. Opponents hit just .197 off him. He was a midseason and postseason All-Star and a Baseball America end-of-year Double-A All-Star. He was the 2018 co-pitcher of the year for the O’s with Keegan Akin when he went 8-4 with a 2.18 ERA between Single-A Delmarva and Single-A Frederick.

But his fastball ranges from 88 to 92 mph. It’s a high-spin-rate fastball, which can help in movement and also make the pitch appear to have late life to the hitter. He’s always had a strikeout rate that pitchers with that velocity usually do not have. He led all O’s farm pitchers in strikeouts in 2018 and 2019. He led the Cape Cod League in strikeouts in the summer of 2016 and the Big East conference while at Xavier a year later.

He must have a Steve Johnson-like invisiball. The hitters have issues squaring it up, and sometimes it’s been a swing-and-miss pitch. Lowther is rated as the O’s No. 10 prospect by MLBPipeline.com and No. 12 by Baseball America.

Wells went 8-6 with a 2.95 ERA in 2019 for Bowie. He ranked among Eastern League leaders in WHIP (5th, 1.07), ERA (6th), innings pitched (7th, 137 1/3), and batting average against (9th, .236). He was named a midseason All-Star for the fourth consecutive year. The 23-year-old from Australia was the Orioles minor league Pitcher of the Year in 2017 while with Delmarva and pitched in the All-Star Futures Game in 2018, representing Frederick.

Wells’ fastball ranges from 87-91 and he added a slider last summer to a repertoire that also includes his slider and changeup. His control and command are excellent and that is a big part of his success. For Delmarva when he the O’s farm Pitcher of the Year in 2017, he walked 10 in 140 innings. Not a misprint. He averaged just 1.6 walks per nine for the Baysox. He attacks hitters and is not afraid to pitch inside. He is rated as the Orioles’ No. 14 prospect by Baseball America and No. 15 by MLBPipeline.com.

Here are other ways these two are similar: They show a lot of poise and smarts on the mound and they study their craft. They learn from each other and other teammates. I would guess most reporters enjoy interviewing them because both are very articulate and provide thought-out and well spoken answers.

They’ll likely never make a national top 100 list with their velocity where it is. But so what? Trey Mancini never made the list either. He had doubters too.

Scouts will tell you that pitchers that don’t blow hitters away must show success at each level to keep advancing. These two have done that. The fact there are some doubters perhaps is a motivator for them.

But the best news for this pair is they are clearly on the O’s radar. They’ve earned the right to be there. And they are going to get their chances. When the minors resume, whenever that is, they should be strong candidates to move to Triple-A. A major league chance should be in the future for both.

They’ll probably have doubters then too. But as they’ve shown repeatedly in their careers, that hasn’t stopped them from getting outs yet.

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