Driven by data, O's farm arms make huge strides

First-year Minor League pitching coordinator Holt pleased with progress across all levels

September 28th, 2019

BOSTON -- For all the pitching struggles the Orioles endured this season at the big league level, their arms enjoyed a resurgence on the Minor League side. Up and down the system, nearly all of the O’s higher-rated pitchers took steps forward in 2019 -- including Grayson Rodriguez (Baltimore's No. 2 prospect, per MLB Pipeline), DL Hall (No. 3), Dean Kremer (No. 8), Michael Baumann (No. 9) and many others.

Ask the Orioles and they’ll say it was more than they could’ve asked for at this point in their rebuild. They viewed 2019 as a foundational year, largely about establishing a new data-driven approach to player development under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias. Running point on those initiatives at the ground level was Minor League pitching coordinator Chris Holt, who said on Saturday that Year 2 will be about expanding those practices and streamlining them throughout the system.

“This year was about getting a process in place to where the players understand where we’re working with and building on those from a skill-level standpoint,” said Holt, who is with the big league club this weekend as a guest instructor. “How do we take what they were able to do this year, continue to have them build on it individually and as a group at large?”

The Orioles’ system is set to feature a slew of fresh faces on the development side in 2020, with more organizational changes likely on the way and Elias and new director of player development Matt Blood planning to fill dozens of vacant positions this offseason. There is speculation that Holt could assume a larger role, perhaps as the result of a shakeup on the big league staff, though he declined to comment on that possibility on Saturday.

What’s clear is that no matter his title, Holt has spent the year making his name as one of the more influential voices in the organization and the main vessel for Elias’ developmental vision since coming over with Elias from the Astros last offseason. Holt was most visible holding spin-axis seminars and implementing the use of high-speed Edgertronic cameras this spring, which subsequently became customary throughout the Orioles' system. Ultimately, Holt’s role was wide-ranging; he essentially functioned as a high-ranking emissary for players and coaches from the Gulf Coast League to Triple-A Norfolk between the data and how to apply it on the mound.

While the Orioles have been realistic about how much ground they still need to make up in the development and analysis spheres, they point to their system-wide bump in strikeout rate as proof of progress. On the individual level, the bounceback year that 2016 first-round Draft pick Cody Sedlock (No. 17) had, as well as success from prospects like Zac Lowther (No. 10) and Alex Wells (No. 20), paint a similar picture.

“We’ve been able to develop some guys who weren’t on the map before. We were also able to get guys who were quality pitchers once they got here, and they were able to improve as well. Overall, we were able to reach a wider scope of players,” Holt said. “I like the work that was done this year. There is still work to be done, no question about it. In terms of Year 1, getting the foundational pieces in place, getting players and coaches on-ramped, we made tremendous strides in Year 1.”

Holt said the goal now is “to have guys in the Minor Leagues continuing their development over time,” a process he said extends into the offseason. Holt said that every pitcher in the organization headed into the winter with an individualized plan tailored to his specific skills and needs, based on what the organization wants to see from him going forward. For some, that’ll include training at independent facilities like Driveline Baseball in Seattle, which have become en vogue in recent years.

Holt and Blood both have prior connections to Driveline, and they have generally adhered to data-driven analysis offered at such facilities. Elias has repeatedly stated his desire to infuse more of the type of technology often found there into Baltimore's player-development operation.

“When these guys go out, I’m happy they want to be proactive in their careers and change,” Holt said. “When guys go to a place like Driveline, it’s really more from a physical training standpoint. There is really nothing I’m going to tell a player that’s a whole lot different.”