Over the years, we’ve seen organizations like the Orioles handle young pitchers on the farm in a similar fashion when it came to bumping up their innings totals each season as they approach the majors. But without minor league games in 2020, now the math has been altered.
A pitcher slated to throw 100 innings this summer didn’t get those innings in. At least not in a minor league game. But maybe he got in half that many - perhaps even more - at an alternate site or on his own throwing to local high school or college hitters.
Pitchers had to find ways to get innings in and work on their deliveries and their pitches. It was time to find a way, especially for the pitchers that didn’t make it to the Bowie alternate site and/or instructional league.
Now the Orioles must decide how many innings all pitchers throughout the organization can throw during the 2021 season. Even as they don’t know for certain yet how many games will be played - in the majors or the minors.
Take two of the O’s best pitching prospects, both drafted from the high school ranks in the first round. Lefty DL Hall threw 81 innings in 2019 and would probably have bumped that to 110 or so in 2020 and then be set for 140 or more in 2021. How does that change now? Grayson Rodriguez threw 94 innings in 2019 and probably could have jumped comfortably to 120 and then to 150 or more for 2021. Both would be set for about a full load of major league innings when their time came.
Both young pitchers spent time at both Bowie this summer and in instructional league, allowing the club to max out innings for those pitchers under the circumstances. They probably were not greatly set back in terms of an innings load for this year.
In an interview this week on MLB Network Radio, O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias specifically discussed this topic. He indicated the club would not be overly cautious with its pitchers come next season.
“We’re going to be a little bit careful with that. But at the end of the day, it is what it is,” said Elias. “And you know, these guys are professional baseball players and we’re going to have a season and we’re going to have to go pitch. So I think we’ll see people kind of stretching the limits of what player development and the industry have been comfortable with the past few years in terms of year-on-year innings increases. ... There’s not really a science to it, but there are some comfort levels that have been established across baseball the last couple of years. And I think they’re going to get tested and stretched.
“But most of our guys, we had them count all the innings they threw at home against their college teammates or friends or whatever and then we added that to what we did at the alternate site. And then those that went on to the instructional league we tacked those on. We got some pretty robust totals for a lot of the upper-level guys. But I think the lower-level pitching prospects, we’re going to have to be more delicate with it.”
In a September interview with Matt Blood, the Orioles’ director of player development, I asked about innings lost in 2020 and how that would be handled moving forward.
“(O’s director of pitching) Chris Holt, he’s a mastermind at this type of stuff,” Blood said. “He’s got it all figured out in a spreadsheet. We are keeping very specific track of what everyone is throwing. Not just the guys in Bowie, but the guys across our entire system and the work they are doing wherever they happen to be. We’ll know at the end of this year how much everybody has thrown. We’ll put that into the calculator and figure out what we feel comfortable with for next year.”
By the way, the issue of pitcher innings for every club extends all the way through its big league roster. The major league staffs only pitched during a 60-game season. Of course, some pitchers got in some innings during the first spring training and no doubt added some on their own during baseball’s shutdown. It all counts and all adds up.
But in looking at the 60-game season, here were the O’s innings leaders:
This will no doubt be very subject to the individual pitcher in 2021. It will be different on a case-by-case basis. An older more experienced pitcher on the farm like Zac Lowther, who threw 148 innings in 2019, might be pushed further than, say Rodriguez, who was at 94 innings that same year.
But the math has been altered after the strange 2020 season. A lot changed this year and this is one small part of that. But according to Elias, the O’s will not be babying pitchers as they look ahead to next season.