Brewers Farm Update

Braulio Ortiz and the Curse of One Great Tool

Quick, think of the loudest tools in the Brewers system.

Hit tool? Keston Hiura.
Throwing arm? That’s Brett Phillips. (Laugh also belongs to Phillips.)
Curveball? I’ll take Adrian Houser here.

What about the fastball? There are some fun arguments to be had. Taylor Williams is pretty electric. Brandon Woodruff can touch 98. How about a spin-rate sleeper like Caden Lemons? And of course we all saw what Freddy Peralta can do with his heater when he’s on.

I’ve got somebody else in mind, though. He may not be the best, but he’s certainly in the conversation. He’s a 6’7”, 250-pound kid signed out of the Dominican Republic, and he became one of the first Brewers farmhands to earn a mid-season promotion when he was bumped up to the Carolina League on May 18. He’s imposing on the mound to say the least, where his preternatural strength combines with easy, fluid arm action to pump gas into the zone in the upper 90s.

He’s Braulio Ortiz.

We’ll start with the positives here. Obviously, Ortiz is capable of blowing a hitter away. If the velocity doesn’t tell you that, check his minor league career K/9 of 10.3, or this year’s figure, which sits at 14.85.

Here’s an excerpt from a Fangraphs scouting report on Ortiz:

“[G]uys with this sort of arm strength don’t come around very often, so he merits close
attention to see what sort of control and consistency he can gain.”

And here’s Baseball Prospectus’ take:

“Ortiz profiles as a power arm in the ‘pen, riding an impressive mid-90s fastball and missing more than a bat per inning. The command is loose and the secondary arsenal needs refinement, but Ortiz is on the fast-track, and looks like a prospect to keep an eye on going forward.”

The problem? Those reports were both filed in 2013, shortly after Ortiz reached High-A for the first time. Five years later, he’s still toiling away in the lower levels.

As is so often the case, one can place the bulk of the blame for this on walks. Ortiz has walked 17 batters so far this year in 13.3 innings, for an ugly WHIP of 2.03. (He’s struck out 22.) Throughout his career, Ortiz carries a 6.9 BB/9, and the last time he pitched more than a few innings above Low-A, his DRA was 9.27 (30 walks and 25 strikeouts in AA, back in 2014).

You probably guessed that the problem is mechanical. Fluid arm action aside, Ortiz struggles to ever repeat the same motion on the mound. His foot never seems to land in the same place twice, and his release point floats around like a balloon. All of this leads to wild inconsistency on a game-to-game basis for Ortiz. One day he’ll implode, like his first outing of the season with the Timber Rattlers (one out recorded on 36 pitches, including two hits, four walks, and three earned runs). A little later on, he’ll get his delivery together and turn in a line that looks like it could have come from Josh Hader (May 17: 1.3 innings pitched, one hit allowed, no walks, each out recorded via strikeout). Occasionally he’ll even showcase the two conflicting versions of himself within the same outing, battling through a bout of minor league Jekyll and Hyde (May 2: One inning pitched, no hits or runs allowed, three walks, two strikeouts, ten total strikes thrown).

Now 26 years old and pitching for his third organization, Ortiz faces a steep climb to so much as a cup of big league coffee; while the Brewers own his rights for the time being, he won’t be cracking their bullpen anytime soon, and even the most experimental rebuilding club will need to see more than a nice number on a radar gun to promote Ortiz past Double-A or thereabouts. The ugly truth of Ortiz’s career is that even the strongest pitcher needs more than velocity and pretty arm action to succeed. And that’s all Ortiz has got.

Almost all, anyway. Scant video evidence suggests a chance at a competent breaking ball. I’d call it a curve, but it could be a slider. There’s also another thing: He’s persistent. Ortiz has been released twice, has dabbled in independent ball, and has pitched at or below Class-A Advanced for six consecutive years. Something keeps him going: an innate belief in himself, or a love for the game, or a desire to taste success and achieve financial security. And who knows? Maybe he’ll put it all together and earn a chance to soak up some low-leverage innings in another couple of years, finally joining players like George Springer and Christian Yelich (both included in that BP scouting report above) in the big leagues. Walks and age aside, his 3.08 DRA this year for Wisconsin looks pretty nice. Stranger things have happened.

Of course, history tells us that those are some pretty long odds. But at this point, Ortiz has worked as a professional baseball player for parts of eight seasons. That’s quite an achievement in and of itself, doubly so when you remember that he wasn’t earning a living wage during that time. I’ll be rooting for him in Carolina, and wherever his road takes him next.

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