Something strange happened to the Orioles. They won three out of four including two against the Yankees to open the season. But something more curious happened to them on the way to the third win.
First-year manager Brandon Hyde hooked his Monday night starter, David Hess, who took a no-hit bid to one out in the seventh before a hard line drive out ended his evening. The Oriole bullpen almost torched away a game they’d led 4-0 before Hess even had to take the mound.
And none of the above were April Fool’s jokes.
Hess threw 82 pitches when Hyde went to the mound to lift him. The righthander put a little extra fuel into his fastball and let it set up his fine secondary pitches including an effective changeup he threw more often than he seems to have done in any of his 2018 games. Throwing twelve out of twenty first pitch strikes didn’t hurt, either.
Hyde’s expressed concern was Hess having also thrown 42 pitches in two innings worth of scoreless Opening Day relief against the Yankees three days earlier. Hess looked as though he’d seen two ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster when Hyde arrived at the mound.
Even the Rogers Centre audience booed when Hyde lifted Hess.
[L]et’s not forget that Hess’s pitch count being such a cause for concern was entirely the result of the O’s steadfast refusal to field a real, major-league quality baseball team. This is a team in desperate need of pitching reinforcements, but instead of spending money on a player like Dallas Keuchel, they decided to start the season with just four starters, leaving Hyde a jumble of pitchers with nebulous roles with which to patch together outings. This is how you end up with a guy like Hess—not a reliever but not really a starter, either—losing a shot at a no-hitter because he had to pitch two innings in relief three days earlier.
Some think the Orioles’ front office, as happens with a number of other front offices these days, put Hyde on a strict pitch count for Monday considering that he did work heavily in relief on Opening Day. Others think Hyde was being a little too over-protective. My guess is the truth might be somewhere in the middle.
Hess proved stand-up enough after the game—acknowledging both his personal disappointment but appreciation that his manager was looking out for his health—which was pretty impressive considering what almost happened after he departed. After his eight strikeout/one walk/no-hit performance, the Orioles ended up being lucky they banked a 6-5 win with the potential tying run stranded on third.
Pedro Araujo relieved Hess and walked Justin Smoak promptly enough. Then Araujo lost the no-hit bid entirely when Randal Grichuk, once a touted young Cardinal bedeviled by injuries and traded to the Blue Jays in January, sent a 2-1 pitch over the left field fence.
Araujo escaped after a followup single and an inning-ending double play. His relief, Mike Wright, got two swift enough outs before Freddy Galvis hit one down the line and over the right field fence before Billy McKinney flied out to end the eighth.
But with one out in the ninth Wright turned it over to Richard Bleier. And Bleier almost turned the whole game over thanks to a sacrifice fly (pinch hitter Kevin Pillar) and an RBI triple (Teoscar Hernandez) before he struck out Lourdes Gurriel to let the Orioles escape with their lives.
All other things considered it wasn’t tough to believe they might have lucked out taking two of three from the Empire Emeritus despite being out-scored by a run during the set before arriving in Toronto.
So how realistic was the concern for Hess’s pitch count and workload?
You can look at his first near-full major league season last year and say he wasn’t exactly overworked—but he started the season at Norfolk (AAA) and pitched 45.2 innings in nine starts before coming up to Baltimore to pitch 103.1 innings. Total it as 148 innings.
As an Oriole in 2018, Hess had a 4.88 ERA and a 5.80 fielding-independent pitching rate; he’s not exactly a strikeout artist and he’s neither a hard fly ball nor hard ground ball pitcher. And he worked with an average 2.9 runs worth of support while he was in his games. There’s a certain degree of hard luck in there, but only a certain.
Except for the 154.1 innings he pitched at Bowie (AA) in 2017, Hess’s total 2018 workload was the heaviest of a career that began in 2014 as a fifth-round draft pick and saw him promoted from A to AA during his second season, when he was 21. Now he’s 25. Except for Monday night, he hasn’t exactly looked like the second coming of past great Orioles pitchers.
But he hasn’t been the most overworked pitcher in the business, either. Unless something looms for him that would be completely unexpected, Hess isn’t likely to suffer the fate of four-fifths of the once-vaunted “Baby Birds” Oriole rotation of 1959-61 (Milt Pappas, Jerry Walker, Jack Fisher, Chuck Estrada, Steve Barber) who looked like comers but ended up with broken or dead arms and short enough careers.
The Baby Birds were bedeviled by a man, Paul Richards, with an overblown reputation for handling pitching. He could handle it as a catcher, which is how he got his rep in the first place, but he mismanaged his Baby Birds horrifically. A longtime Orioles scout, Jim Russo, in his memoir Super Scout: Thirty-Five Years of Major League Scouting, dropped the dime on Richards:
With Paul, we led the major leagues in, of all things, tonsillectomies. Paul was from the old school that said, “There’s got to be poison in your system if you’ve got an injury.” When our young pitchers would come up with shoulder problems, Paul would tell our team doctor, “Doc, these kids are having shoulder and arm problems. Better check those tonsils out real close.” We had more kids having their tonsils removed than any other club, and it was all silly and unnecessary. The only thing wrong with those kids was they were throwing too much.
Paul’s teaching ability was genius. But he had another side that was just plain dumb . . . [O]ne of those kids would pitch in an exhibition game and, instead of running and a shower, it was to the bullpen to work on either an extra pitch or the slip pitch. And nobody’s keeping track of how many pitches they’re throwing. We’re not talking about veterans here. We’re talking about nineteen- and twenty-year-old arms. Everybody calls Paul a genius, and he was a real smart man. But how can you lose track of that?
What a surprise, then, that Jerry Walker, Chuck Estrada, and Steve Barber ended up with elbow- or shoulder-compromised careers. What a surprise, then, that Jack Fisher was plain overworked by the time he became a Met in 1964 and turned into a plain workhorse who was far less than half of how he looked in 1959-60 with the Orioles.
They used to say of Milt Pappas that he was “babied” because, somehow, his workload wasn’t quite as heavy as the others. Maybe what they ought to say is, what a real surprise that Pappas was probably lucky to enjoy as long, as healthy, and as fine a career as he ended up enjoying. Among the Baby Birds he was the exception, not the rule.*
Nor does Hess seem likely to go the way of Generation K, the Mets’ prospective mid-1990s front-line threesome of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson. Overworked insanely in the minors before they were each 22. One and all ended up with elbow or shoulder trouble, sometimes both. Careers destroyed, if you didn’t count Isringhausen’s somewhat unlikely resurrection as a quality relief pitcher for over a decade.
Generation K’s problem was the Mets’ minor league brain trust and the parent club’s manager at the time. A former pitcher of modest endowment himself, Dallas Green was never programmed to believe that a very young pitcher’s arm and shoulder weren’t born major league ready and could be ruined with overwork before proper development and strengthening.
Neither Green nor the Mets’ farm administration had a clue, and maybe they couldn’t have cared less, that Isringhausen, Pulsipher, and Wilson came up to the Mets half cooked already. Until, one after the other, all three went down injured fast enough and, as Rob Neyer once observed, “it opened a lot of eyes, even among grizzled old baseball men who would much rather have remained blind.”
The thing that bothered me the most about my short career is the fact that I was just learning how to pitch when my arm blew out. I used to challenge everybody.—Chuck Estrada.
I’ve told many people this before: I’ve done two things that never will happen again. Throw 200 innings in a minor league season and throw 131 pitches in my first major league start. Those two things will never happen again.—Bill Pulsipher.
David Hess doesn’t look bound for a Hall of Fame pitching career, and perhaps that’s a big reason why there was such a moan of disappointment that he was pulled with a no-hitter in the making Monday night. You know: a guy who’s liable to be a major league footnote in the long run has a shot at immortality for one night.
Even an organisation that’s the clown show Deadspin describes gets things right once in awhile. Sure it would have been fun to see if Hess could have finished what he started, and fun isn’t likely to be synonymous with Orioles baseball very often this year, barring unforeseen surprises.
But Hess was beginning to droop a bit before he was hooked. The final two outs he got on the night were hard line drives. Like a lot of pitchers, Hess isn’t as effective the third time around the order. And if it’s going to be another long sad season for the Orioles after all, the least they can do is make sure they have live arms later on (they’re missing a few right now, by the way), if only to keep the embarrassments per game from happening too soon, too often.
* Milt Pappas, who died in 2016, once claimed Paul Richards put him on strict pitch limits early enough to ensure his long career. Except that Pappas pitched fifteen complete games in 1959 and eleven in 1960—and, as Rob Neyer once pointed out, it’s kind of tough to throw 26 complete games in two seasons if you’re on a 90-pitch game limit. And from 1959-1965, Pappas pitched 79 complete games, second most in the American League in that span.
The facts include that Pappas averaged nine complete games per 162 seasons lifetime; he averaged almost seven innings per start lifetime; and in his ages 32-33 seasons—managed as a Cub by Leo Durocher, a man not exactly sensitive to the physical drain of pitching—he threw, respectively, fourteen and ten complete games, including eight shutouts and a no-hitter.
But perhaps those ages 32-33 seasons took more out of Pappas than he was willing to admit. After a very down 1973, he was finished . . . at 35.
There may have been a small stretch when Richards nursed Pappas as a 19-year-old major league pitcher but that seems to have been it. I’m no expert but I think it’s a safe guess to say that Pappas simply was a stronger physical specimen than his fellow Baby Birds. There’s no other explanation, other than that he lived on control instead of hard throwing (his money pitch was a firm slider), for why he forged a sixteen-year career despite Richards’s general carelessness with those pitchers.