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September 29, 2015

Pitching Backward

TINSTAABOPP

by Jeff Long

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Recently Jeff Quinton and I wrote about our belief that the concept of TINSTAAPP has become a crutch for people who don't take the time to properly assess the state of pitching development. This was very difficult for me because, living in Baltimore, I've seen TINSTAAPP firsthand. The Orioles are awful at developing pitchers. Of course, the idea behind TINSTAAPP—that attrition among pitching prospects is much higher than it is among their position player counterparts—means that we should be careful before making sweeping generalizations about an organization's ability to develop pitchers. It does not, however, allow us to handwave decades of pitching-development incompetence.

Perhaps "incompetence" is too strong a word. After all, so much of what impacts pitching prospects is out of the Orioles' hands. Other teams though, like the Cardinals, have proven adept at drafting and developing pitchers. Why have the Orioles struggled so much to develop pitching while other teams have had at least mediocre results?

***

In 2004 Tony DeMacio was the Orioles' scouting director. DeMacio had a terrific scouting pedigree, having cut his teeth as a scout for the Atlanta Braves. During DeMacio's time with the Braves he was responsible for signing a Hall of Famer in Tom Glavine and a soon-to-be Hall of Famer in Chipper Jones. However, DeMacio is central to one of the more embarrassing stories out of the warehouse in Baltimore.

According to Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, DeMacio's policies as the O's scouting director are directly responsible for the club missing out on the talented young pitcher Jaime Garcia.

In 2004 each and every player the O's wished to sign was given a test. If he passed the test, the O's would make an offer. If he didn't pass the test, the club would pass on the player. According to scout Joe Almaraz, however, the test wasn't exactly up to snuff for non–English speaking players: "It wasn't that he didn't do well on the test. The problem was that when they translated the test into Spanish for him, it was misinterpreted. I read the whole thing myself." Almaraz was a former Spanish teacher, so it's safe to say that he was qualified to judge whether or not the test should've disqualified his player.

A year later Almaraz joined the St. Louis Cardinals, promptly convincing his new bosses to select Garcia in the 22nd round of the following year's draft. Garcia now has a career 4.18 DRA over 720 innings. He's produced 7.8 WARP since 2008, a number that would easily make him one of the best Orioles pitchers of the past 10 years.

***

Garcia is but one of a number of pitching failures that the Orioles have seen under a variety of regimes. DeMacio would leave during the 2004 season, replaced by Joe Jordan. Jordan too drafted some notable arms, and while his selections were often signed by the club, they rarely had careers that went as planned.

The Orioles' inability to draft and develop pitchers wasn't a result of a bad scouting director or poor GM oversight; it has stretched across multiple regimes and organizational philosophies. It's truly incomprehensible, and so the DeMacio debacle—as ridiculous as it sounds just 11 years later—serves as the perfect example of decades of pitching ineptitude.

***

Jaime Garcia's annulled signing kept a talented pitcher from joining the O's organization, but it doesn't speak to the woes of the pitchers already populating it. Before Garcia, there was a group of arguably successful starting pitchers drafted or signed and developed by the Orioles. Sidney Ponson, Daniel Cabrera, and Erik Bédard became stalwarts of a rotation that was often among the worst in baseball.

Sidney Ponson
Ponson, a troubled pitcher who had problems with the law, would eventually have his contract nullified by the Orioles (which didn't exactly go over well with the MLBPA). Before that, though, Ponson was a high-four-ERA pitcher who the O's developed after signing him out of Aruba. Like the others in this cadre, Ponson had some promise because of his skill, but he never had the swing-and-miss stuff that Cabrera or Bédard possessed.

Ponson was a success in that he stood on the mound and generally threw the ball over home plate. He accrued major-league value despite his performance largely because of the ridiculous run environment in which he pitched. Ponson was awful, but at least he could stand out there for 200-plus innings in a given season.

Erik Bédard
Bédard was one of the few arguable successes of the Orioles' pitching-development program. In fact, you could make the argument that he is the lone success of a nearly 20-year span. Bédard's low-90s fastball complemented a curveball that seemed to defy the laws of physics. His refinement of a changeup under pitching coach Ray Miller made for a complete arsenal, allowing Bédard to become one of the better pitchers in baseball with the O's.

Unfortunately, Bédard was fragile. He never threw more than 200 innings in a season, and only topped 150 innings three times in his MLB career. So while Bédard was a success in performance, he wasn't one in durability. An ace who can't stay on the mound—an anti-Ponson if you will—isn't a very useful ace after all.

Daniel Cabrera
Cabrera was signed as an international free agent in 1999, and he made his MLB debut five seasons later, after up-and-down performances in the minor leagues. Cabrera's electric mid-90s fastball was betrayed by his inability to control the pitch, resulting in impressive strikeout numbers and concerning walk totals. In 2004, the year Garcia flunked the Orioles' entrance exam, Cabrera made his MLB debut and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting.

His flirtation with a postseason award was the high point of his career; he never figured out the control problems. Cabrera was eventually non-tendered after several four- and five-ERA seasons, but not before being demoted to Triple-A in favor of another O's pitching prospect.

***

Adam Loewen was in the system at the time, the former top draft pick dazzling scouts and fans alike with his dominating performances in the lowest levels of the Orioles' system. Loewen was the highest-ever Canadian draft pick at the time, and his promise seemed very real to those in the organization. Unfortunately, Loewen's pitching prowess was undermined by an inability to hit the strike zone, but he trudged through the higher levels of the minors with impunity because of his high draft slot. After four years in the minors, Loewen began to show that he might be a contributor at the major-league level after producing serious results at Double- and Triple-A in 2006.

Loewen's success would be short-lived, however, as he couldn't translate that success to the majors. His career ERA with Baltimore was over 5.50, and he walked more than six batters per nine innings. A stress fracture would eventually curtail Loewen's pitching career, and he left the Orioles' organization after a lengthy rehab and conversion to a power-hitting outfielder. Several years with Toronto and a conversion back to pitching later and Loewen re-emerged as a major leaguer in 2015, throwing 17 awful innings for Philadelphia.

Loewen's unsuccessful major-league career hurt even worse because talented pitchers like Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, and Matt Cain went later in the first round during that same 2002 draft. Loewen made the majors, and in no way was a bust by traditional measures. He even topped out as Baseball America's 13th-best prospect prior to his MLB debut. Unfortunately, Loewen was never going to be measured traditionally, and his failure to become even a back-end starter was a failure for the organization.

***

The Cavalry, they called them. They were among the most inspiring prospect groups in Orioles history. Ignoring the maxim that once you nickname your pitching-prospect group, they inevitably break your heart (see the Yankees' Killer B's, the Rangers' DVD trio, or the A's Four Aces), Baltimore eagerly clung to the hope that was so apparent each time one of the O's hot young pitching prospects took the mound.

This group consisted of Chris Tillman, Troy Patton, Radhames Liz, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, and Brian Matusz. All six pitchers made Baseball America's top-100 list at one time or another. Patton was the least heralded, peaking at 78th, followed by Liz (69th), Arrieta (67th), Britton (63rd), Tillman (22nd), and Matusz (fifth). When all six were clicking, O's fans were left to ponder whether a six-man rotation might be the best course of action. Plus, this grouping ignores guys like Brad Bergesen and Brandon Erbe, who, while not quite the caliber of prospect as the Cavalry, had produced solid results while showing some promise in the minors.

Tillman and Patton
Tillman and Patton only tangentially count for the O's as they were near-finished products when the O's traded for them prior to the 2009 season. Tillman was a headliner of the Bédard trade to Seattle along with franchise player Adam Jones. Patton was acquired in a deal that sent Miguel Tejada to Houston, though he had already made his MLB debut before the O's acquired him.

Patton actually pitched extremely well for the O's, but all of his innings came out of the bullpen. Tillman has been valuable (8.8 WARP over parts of seven seasons) but his career has been up and down to say the least. From 2012 to 2013 he posted a cFIP under 100, but those are the only two such seasons of his career thus far.

Radhames Liz
Liz was signed as an international free agent in 2003 but ultimately flamed out after a few partial MLB seasons. Liz's extremely long limbs caused him to suffer from the same calamities that ruined Cabrera's career: poor control. Unlike Cabrera, Liz made a return to the big leagues this season after several years playing in Asia.

Jake Arrieta
Oh, Jake Arrieta. Former Cubs manager Dave Sveum recently said, "Wow, how could someone give that up?" Which … yeah. He's pretty good. When he was with the Orioles, Arrieta was not allowed to throw his cutter, which has proven to be a pretty good pitch. He was traded along with Pedro Strop for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger two years ago, in what's quickly become one of the most lopsided trades in recent baseball history. Just remember that he wouldn't have ever done this in Baltimore:

Not only did the Orioles not develop Arrieta to reach his massive potential, but they also gave up on him and let another team reap the rewards after paying pennies on the proverbial dollar.

Zach Britton & Brian Matusz
I once wrote that Zach Britton had panned out as a prospect, even if he wasn't the dominating starter that he could have become. Britton is, without a doubt a successful major-league pitcher. He is not, however, a starting pitcher, so his impact on the O's is limited to roughly 70 dominant innings in any given season.

Much like Britton, Matusz transitioned to the bullpen after not cutting it in the starting rotation. Unlike Britton, Matusz was a top-five overall prospect, ranked ahead of guys like Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Moore, and Shelby Miller. Matusz has been decent as a reliever, but is essentially limited to being a LOOGY or David Ortiz specialist. He was supposed to be the O's ace, the one they were never able to develop. Now he's an annual non-tender candidate because of his inflating salary and limited value.

***

The O's have been through a handful of managers, several pitching coaches, numerous scouting directors, and a handful of GMs. They've seen dozens of pitching prospects come and go, and still seemingly struggle to properly develop pitchers. You could argue that Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen have been development successes, but really those two are international scouting successes because they were basically finished products when the Orioles signed them. You can argue the same for Tillman, and of course Ubaldo Jimenez was the most significant free-agent signing the O's have made since Albert Belle.

That leaves Kevin Gausman, one of the O's "Big Three." Gausman (peaked at 20th on Baseball America's list), Dylan Bundy (second), and Hunter Harvey (68th) represent the future of the Orioles' rotation.

Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey
Of course, Bundy has already had Tommy John surgery, and Harvey may be heading down that road as well. This visit would be Harvey's second to Dr. James Andrews this season, and if the pitcher does need TJ surgery, the Orioles may have essentially wasted more than half a season by trying to have him rehab without going under the knife from May through September of this year. This came after Bundy was shut down for the year with shoulder issues that came about during his TJ recovery. James Andrews noted that he had "never before observed that type of calcium buildup in that area."

Steve Melewski ran down some of the other pitcher injuries to notable prospects in the O's system, and it paints a grim picture. This is after Dan Duquette brought in Rick Peterson, the former pitching coach whose biomechanical analysis is said to reduce pitcher injuries by flagging potential problem areas in a pitcher's mechanics. One might argue that Peterson's tweaking of Bundy's mechanics in fact contributed to his injuries as the muscle mass he famously built up in high school was no longer supporting his tweaked mechanics. Bundy doesn't seem happy about having tweaked his mechanics in an interview with David Laurilia.

Kevin Gausman
Gausman hasn't had the same injury woes that have plagued Bundy and Harvey, but his development hasn't been smooth either. Many have wondered if the O's roster juggling has hurt the prospect's development, a very real concern given the O's track record. In 2013 Gausman pitched across three levels, including making 15 appearances as a reliever and five as a starter. The following season he once again split time between Triple-A and the major-league club, this time all starts. This season, Gausman has been splitting time between the minors and the majors. He's also pitched in relief and started. He's done it all, and perhaps it's had an impact on his performance.

Gausman's career ERA is over 4.3, and he's been worth two WARP over parts of three seasons as an Oriole. There's hope for him, and Bundy still has some of that former top prospect shine on him. Harvey broke out after his first professional season, so perhaps he can rekindle that when he comes back from his latest injury.

Or maybe, as history might suggest, they'll all fail to live up to their immense promise. The Orioles simply aren't good at developing top-notch pitchers. They've tried traditional methods, data-driven methods, dozens of methodologies, and countless approaches to player acquisition. They've targeted power pitchers, finesse pitchers, guys with promise, and guys with high floors.

We're wired to look for patterns and identify root causes. The reality is that there has been precious little tying all of these development failures together. Maybe it's just bad organizational luck, or maybe it's really TINSTAAPP.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, one truth remains. The future of the Orioles depends on the club being able to turn guys like Gausman, Bundy, and Harvey into reliable starters. Chen, Gonzalez, and Tillman could all soon be gone. They'll leave holes in a rotation that desperately needs to improve if this team is going to contend. For the past 20 years, the Orioles haven't been able to fill those holes by growing arms. For better or worse, the club's status as a contender hinges on their ability to do just that, history be damned.

Thanks to Jon Shepherd and Camden Depot for their excellent coverage of the O's "cavalry."

Jeff Long is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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