BRADENTON, Fla. -- Over the span of six innings Thursday afternoon at LECOM Park, the divergent tracks of two rotation hopefuls were plain to see. And when the dust settled on the Orioles’ 5-4 loss to the Pirates, one of the hottest competitions in camp had come more into focus.
On one side was Mike Wright, whose three scoreless innings provided more tangible proof of his rush on the roster. On the other was Yefry Ramirez, whose three-inning stint went differently. Though he struck out six, Ramirez also allowed four runs -- all on solo homers -- to swell his spring ERA to 5.40.
All told, they represented two rotation hopefuls trending in opposite directions.
“There were a couple pitches that felt really, really solid today and I’m excited to continue moving forward,” said Wright. “I feel really good right now, and I hope to keep that rolling and have the best spring possible.”
So far, Wright has done exactly that. The righty has now logged 10 scoreless innings in Grapefruit League play, success he attributes to two factors. One is a confidence level he hasn’t enjoyed “since 2016,” the last year Wright started regularly at the Major League level. The other is a cutter he’s developing in favor of his slider, which Wright threw 31 percent of the time in 2018, per Statcast. Wright began toying with the cutter earlier this spring, at the suggestion of the club’s revamped analytics department.
“It looks like he’s got confidence in his cutter right now and you saw a lot of tough swings, bad swings where it was really moving,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “So I’m hoping it’s giving him confidence. It’s like he’s just continuing to get better every outing as he goes along.”
Though Wright declined to get into specifics of his adjustments, saying, “I don’t want to give anything to hitters that I’m going to face,” he mentioned Minor League pitching coordinator Chris Holt by name as a major influence. Holt’s mandatory spin efficiency seminars have been one of the more visible elements of the Orioles’ new data-driven approach this spring.
“I’m doing things a little different and with a little more conviction behind them because of what the stats say,” Wright said. “They say, 'This is what you got, go out and use it this way.' It’s exciting putting that work in and seeing the results right now.”
The results have been tougher to come by for Ramirez, who entered camp as a favorite to claim a rotation spot based on the 12 starts he made as a rookie last summer. He’s now surrendered five home runs across 10 innings in Grapefruit League play.
“I just thought Yefry got into some predictable counts,” Hyde said. “You just can’t fall behind in the big leagues … To be effective you have to really be able to keep guys off-balance and keep guys off your fastball or off one side of the plate.”
In the end, the Orioles may end up having room in their rotation for both Wright and Ramirez. Two spots will be open should the club fully amend its view of Nate Karns as a reliever, a possibility that’s looking more likely by the day. That would provide an extra opportunity for what’s shaping into a five-man race: besides Wright and Ramirez, David Hess and left-handers John Means and Josh Rogers are getting legitimate looks as well. The O's are also stretching Jimmy Yacabonis out -- mostly on the back fields -- as another option.
But Wright’s situation is the most dire. As the only pitcher in the mix without options, Wright cannot be sent to the Minors without first passing through waivers should he not make the club. The others can be yo-yoed back and forth more or less at the club’s will, and they likely will be at various points this summer. The fallback for Wright is a relief role; he’s pitched to a 5.07 ERA in 67 career appearances out of the ‘pen.