It was all a bit of mystery. They were playing baseball at Double-A Bowie this year but there were not any games that counted. No other Eastern League teams came to town. Bowie was an important place however, as it was the site of the Orioles’ alternate camp this summer.
No media or fans were allowed to watch and/or chronicle the happenings. But it was clear that some good instruction and work was going on out of the limelight and the major league spotlight.
We saw Ryan Mountcastle come from Bowie and produce instantly for the Orioles. We saw César Valdez come over with his dead fish changeup and confound big league hitters. We saw young pitchers like Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann make solid debuts and put up mostly good numbers.
No games at Bowie was no problem, even during a season shortened by COVID-19.
This week, I had separate interviews with the two pitching coaches who worked at the Bowie camp. I spoke with Kennie Steenstra, who just completed his 16th year in the organization and had been slated to work at Triple-A Norfolk this year. He was pitching coach at Bowie in 2019. And also to Justin Ramsey, who completed his second season with the club this year. He was pitching coach at Single-A Delmarva in 2019 and was slated to be at Bowie this season.
I asked Steenstra what made the Bowie camp work so well this year, particularly for the pitchers.
“I think we did a nice job from the very beginning of having a structured organization to it - guys knew exactly what they were there to work on and try and get better,” he said. “Chris (Holt, director of pitching), Justin and myself, we all were on the same page in telling these guys what they needed to do to get better. And when they had that chance in the big leagues, to perform. Every guy we had in Bowie bought in and went along with the plans that were laid out for them.
“It was good to see. We had some older guys there that could have been a problem in trying to butt heads with us. But everybody kind of was pulling on the same rope and we had some great progress there.”
The chemistry among the pitchers was good.
“You think about some of the guys we had there,” Steenstra said. “You had a DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez facing a Taylor Davis and some guys that have 1,000 or 2,000 minor league at-bats facing guys that have 100 innings in the minor leagues.
“I thought we had a nice range of different personalities, differing experience levels. And we really had no issues of one group trying to top the other group. Everyone worked together very well and older guys did a great job of giving advice to the younger guys. It just kept the competition going well.”
I asked Ramsey whether observing the extensive protocols made it harder to coach effectively.
“It didn’t impact us in that we couldn’t get the players better,” he said. “Obviously, we had to do it in different ways. More Zoom meetings, more phone calls. We were in the visitors clubhouse with the pitchers, the position players were on the home side. A lot of interaction with Kennie and I in our little office. We had a second monitor set up on the other side of the room so we could show videos without a lot of (close) interacting. Zooms from the hotel. Daily conversations with Holty, Kennie and I. Just had to go about it different ways. Hats off to the organization for providing the ability to do that for us.”
Coaches were aware to social distance when possible. What about working closely with pitchers during bullpen sessions?
“We could be with them in the bullpens, but we had to be masked,” Ramsey said. “So we could be there for their bullpens, but we couldn’t throw them a baseball if one got away. Or if we used a striped ball they would have to put that off to the side and sanitize it. It was just different. You are used to guys getting loose and you would throw a ball to them. But we couldn’t throw them one if one got away. It is second nature to do that but you had to remind yourself you could not do that.
“It was made pretty apparent from the beginning that we were taking things above and beyond, I would say. I don’t know what other organizations did, but I know what we did and it was top-notch. From the time we stepped on the field at Bowie, it was clear, the internal coaching and the guys keeping the regulations and holding us accountable. We didn’t have any issues.”
I checked in with the pitching coaches on several pitchers and what they were working on this year at the Bowie site. We’ll publish many more of their comments over the next few weeks. Today here are a few comments on two pitchers that were new to the Baltimore organization in 2020.
Lefty Kevin Smith was acquired by the Orioles when Miguel Castro was traded to the New York Mets on Aug. 31. Heading into this season, the 23-year-old Smith was rated as New York’s No. 9 prospect by Baseball America and he is currently the O’s No. 12 per MLBPipeline.com. Smith was drafted in round seven in 2018 out of the University of Georgia.
In two seasons on the Mets farm, he went 12-8 with an ERA of 2.75. Over 140 2/3 innings, he recorded a 1.17 WHIP and a 10.1 strikeout rate. He reached as high as Double-A in 2019 and in six starts with Binghamton in the Eastern League went 3-2 with a 3.45 ERA. He throws a low 90s fastball with a changeup and slider.
“Very quality young man,” Steenstra said of Smith. “Got a very good sinker and four-seamer both. Has the ability to throw both of those for strikes. The slider was his best putaway pitch to righties and lefties. He likes throwing that backfoot slider to the righties. Very competitive and very intuitive in wanting to learn everything about our system, what we are doing and trying to get better. We felt he made some strides in the short time he was there.”
I asked Steenstra what it would take for Smith to make the majors and have the early success that Akin and Kremer had.
“I think it’s similar,” Steenstra said. “He’s got to develop a little bit better of a changeup. He’s got a pretty decent one right now, but just getting consistent spin and consistent arm speed with that pitch to utilize that more in his mix will help him a ton. But he’s another guy that with the Mets the year before put up some pretty impressive numbers for his age and experience level. I think he can do some big things in the next couple of years.”
On Aug. 3, right-hander Kyle Bradish, 24, was added to the O’s Bowie site. He came to the organization last Dec. 4 when Dylan Bundy was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for four right-handers. Bradish was drafted in round four of 2018 by the Angels out of New Mexico State. He was a Cape Cod League All-Star in the summer of 2017.
He made his pro debut in 2019 as a starter for high Single-A Inland Empire in the California League. He went 6-7 with a 4.28 ERA. Over 101 innings, he walked 53, fanned 120, posted a .235 opponent batting average and a 1.42 WHIP.
“There is nothing not to like,” Ramsey said about Bradish. “He’s a phenomenal person. Showed up a little later, but in shape and ready to go. Strong, physical kid. Different delivery than maybe what you are used to seeing. Higher arm slot, more over the top, but that’s OK. It works well for him. It was fun to watch. First time for him in the organization and it was nice to work with him.”
Bradish throws his cutting fastball in the low to mid 90s with a curve, slider and changeup.
When you talk about starting pitchers yet to debut with the Orioles that the organization has some hopes for, and are currently at higher levels, you talk about a group of pitchers such as Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Smith, to named just a few.
Ramsey believes Bradish fits in well talent-wise with that group.
“I do. I think he’s up with that. Not taking anything away from those guys, but I thought he was underrated in some rankings I saw. He is very competitive,” he said.
I also recorded Zoom interviews with Steenstra and Ramsey and you will see those soon. Plus we’ll get more insights from them on several pitchers, including Hall, Rodriguez, Akin and Kremer.