Orioles coach Chris Holt is on his third title in his third year in the organization. It just points to his growing importance to the club and how it has expanded each season. For two years, he was entrusted with overseeing pitching on the farm. Now he joins the major league staff for the first time in 2021.
Holt was hired for the 2019 season as minor league pitching coordinator. That was the last full season before the pandemic, and 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 Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Meanwhile, Triple-A Norfolk’s pitchers 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 strikeout rate per nine innings in that year on the farm jumped from 8.18 in 2018 to 9.26.
It was a strong year of pitching and not long after it ended, Holt was promoted to the position of director of pitching, where he would have more input with the big league staff. We didn’t know then that there would be no minor league season. Entering 2021, Holt has the title of pitching coach/director of pitching. His main focus will be the big league staff, but he will also maintain some oversight of pitching on the farm.
The various roles mean Holt is well connected with pitchers that have been in the organization - both in the majors and those still to come that are currently in the minors. That serves as a benefit to him now as pitching coach for the Orioles.
“It makes it easier to have conversations that are just follow through on things that we’ve already been perhaps working on or things that we’ve improved upon over the previous two years,” Holt said. “They know when they come in and talk to me or (assistant pitching coach) Darren Holmes that we are invested in them and their careers and invested in helping them get the most out of their ability. And letting them take the wheel. We have no desire to dominate anybody’s life with anything that we see as our program. We have things that we’re doing to help maximize each guy. So they know when they have relationships with me and Darren Holmes, they know what they get.”
Holt said he knows what he will get from Holmes as they work together for the first time this season on the big league staff.
“He’s been a tremendous impact since he first came on board in the winter of 2019,” Holt said. “We spent a lot of time that winter on Zoom calls and just getting familiar. He has the ability to really connect with players and other coaches. He’s a tremendous person who is a very talented baseball coach. And he is a guy who, we work together and are on the same page, so there is never any concern about mixed messages or any kind of noise for a player. We are always working to be on the same page and have a shared message with all the players. Couldn’t be more grateful to have Darren as assistant pitching coach.”
And on the farm: The minor league team schedules that were released yesterday show us that some teams will see a lot of just a few opponents in the realigned leagues with the generic names. By the way, apparently these names could change to something better than Triple-A East or Double-A Northeast. That would be welcome.
Triple-A East teams will play 142 games and opening day is set for April 6. All leagues at the Single-A and Double-A levels will play 120 games and those leagues start on May 4. All leagues end on Sept. 19. That date could be the end of the year with no playoffs, although I have not seen or heard an official announcement on that.
Fans have asked me often about tickets to games and fan attendance. I would expect that we hear each team make its own announcements. I imagine that all teams are subject to both the state and local regulations in their area. Some front office staff I have spoken with expressed optimism that at least some fans will be allowed in minor league ballparks possibly as soon as opening day or not long after.
For instance, the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds, in the press release announcing their schedule stated that, “In preparation for the 2021 season, investments have been made in new protective measures to ensure fan, staff and player safety when visiting Perdue Stadium.”
Added general manager Chris Bitters: “While we currently are still under a limited capacity in adherence with state health guidelines, we are committed to implementing all our new protective measures immediately to ensure we are prepared to keep fans safe right now and as our capacity grows. Our community and fan base has always been a top priority and we are looking forward to welcoming fans back for Shorebirds baseball in 2021.”
Brian Shallcross, general manager at Double-A Bowie, responded to a fan on my Twitter account yesterday asking about fans attending Baysox games.
“Working with Prince George’s county to get fans at our games,” he wrote. “Plenty of time for us to plan each scenario out, one of the positive aspects of having such a large stadium is that can spread our fans out.”
Holt said yesterday it will be a lift for minor league players to now have schedules they can point to and a season to get ready for.
“Just what a breath of fresh air and relief for those guys to have something to look forward to after being home most of the year last year,” he said. “How exciting that must be for them to know they’re going to come in and compete and work again to get where they want to go in their careers.
“Big shoutout to all of the players in our organization who now have something to look forward to and are ready to come in and rock and roll. That is the biggest thing with having dates and some clarity on that. It’s also really important too that we have a framework to adjust from should anything else need to change. And we know with this entire scenario that things can and will change. But when we have a firm plan and we know we could have fans at some point, what a relief to know that we could see some sense of normalcy with a minor league season.”
Here is a closer look at each team’s schedule. Most series will be six-game series this year played from Tuesday through Sunday with all teams getting Mondays off. The longer series and planned off day are an attempt to cut down on travel and expenses for that and give players more time not spent on buses and in airports.
Norfolk: The Tides will play games only versus teams in the Southeast Division in the Triple-A East league. Of their 142 games, a whopping 114 will come against just three teams with 42 games versus the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and 36 each against Charlotte and Durham. The Tides will play Gwinnett 12 times, Memphis 10 times and have six games with Nashville, all during a season-opening series. The Tides will have 12 six-game home series and open at home April 13 against Jacksonville. They will play 72 games at home and 70 on the road.
Bowie: The Baysox will open their 29th season May 4 at Altoona and open their home season a week later versus Reading. They will play 60 at home and on the road. Their most played opponent will be Richmond and the clubs meet 24 times. But the schedule is spread out quite nicely compared to some other clubs. The Baysox will play nine other teams and meet Akron, Altoona, Erie, Harrisburg, Hartford, Reading and Somerset 12 times each.
Aberdeen: The IronBirds will play as a full-season high Single-A team for the first time when they open May 4 at nearby Wilmington. Aberdeen will play its first 12 games on the road before its home opener at Ripken Stadium on May 18 versus Wilmington. The IronBirds will play that team 24 times and play 18 games versus Brooklyn. They will play nine teams overall.
Delmarva: The Shorebirds are in a four-team division in the 12-team Low-A East league. And they will play 96 of 120 games versus just three teams, meeting Fredericksburg 36 times and playing Salem and Lynchburg 30 times each. They will play just two other clubs all year, meeting Carolina and Down East 12 times each.