Orioles prospect Drew Rom learning how to pitch in big leagues from ‘crafty lefties’ still learning themselves
Whenever he can, Orioles pitching prospect Drew Rom watches replays of fellow finesse left-handers Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells trying to make their way as rookies in the American League East.
Their careers have almost been mirror images so far, with unqualified success climbing the minor league ladder but questions about how their style translates to the majors.
“I watch those guys more than anything just because we’re so similar in just about everything that we do. I have to get the upper hand on that and kind of get started early,” Rom said. “The biggest thing is learning their sequencing, learning what’s effective for them, and what doesn’t work.”
Rom, a 21-year-old who will make his final start of the season as Double-A Bowie looks to stave off playoff elimination Friday, has built on an impressive 2019 with strong performances over two levels this year. With a fastball that tops out around 90 mph and three secondary pitches, Rom has done it all without overpowering anyone.
Same goes for Lowther and Wells, who in 2018 and 2017 were the Orioles’ Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year — an honor Rom could share with Grayson Rodriguez when awards are announced next week. This season, Rom went 11-1 with a 3.18 ERA and 120 strikeouts with a 1.12 WHIP in 107 2/3 innings.
Rom knows what got Lowther and Wells to where they are now, though, and strives for it himself.
“Just the command they both have and had all throughout the levels, and even that they have in the big leagues now, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “All three of us are kind of grouped as command, crafty lefties. That’s the biggest thing for me, keeping that consistent throughout all the levels so just doing that and making my best pitches.”
Bowie pitching coach Justin Ramsey, who was with Rom all year in 2019 at Low-A Delmarva, said the young pitcher has been able to keep his strikeout numbers up without relying on inexperienced hitters to chase outside the strike zone.
“There’s a better feel for an attack plan,” Ramsey said. “Some better pitching situations, and he’s definitely more around the zone. The concern for me in ’19 was how much of the success is guys chasing out of zone because it’s A-ball, compared to how that plays at the higher levels. We’ve seen, if anything, his walk totals have gone down, which means he’s not only working more efficiently but throwing more quality strikes. It’s a lot of fun to see.
“He’s bigger. He’s stronger. He’s moving better. he’s applied all the work that the organization has given him and it’s been fun to see, especially at this level.”
Rom could have coasted on his success in 2019, when he had a 2.93 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP and 11.52 strikeouts per nine innings for the Shorebirds. But he pitched in a developmental league back home in Kentucky to stay sharp while the minor leagues were shut down in 2020, facing former major leaguers like Brandon Phillips. He got real-time feedback on what would help him be successful at the highest level.
Successful at-bats in which he picked up strikeouts or induced weak contact while pitching for the hometown Florence Y’alls made him realize the value of working backwards and using all of his pitches in every count.
“It was more learning, here and there, how to pitch-sequence and everything and not just go fastball-fastball-slider, actually having to pitch in reverse and going after guys,” Rom said.
That ability is something that grows in a young pitcher with time, and comes with a caveat at the major league level. Both Wells — who has a career 2.87 ERA in the minors but enters Friday’s start with a 7.96 ERA in the majors — and Lowther — whose five shutout innings Thursday night were a bright spot in what’s been a challenging year after entering 2021 with a 2.26 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP — have learned that command is paramount when pitching with the stuff they have.
Wells said he’d want someone who pitches like him to know one thing about how that stuff carries to the majors: “They punish your mistakes a lot, and they hit them with hard contact, too.”
“Knowing that my mistakes were going to get hit hard, I would definitely try not to make mistakes more often,” Wells said. “That would probably be the biggest thing — and don’t get too nervous. It’s easy to say it’s just another game, but you’ve got to go out there and go out and attack the zone. I feel like when I’ve shown where I’m at my best here, it’s when I’m out there attacking the zone and not being afraid to challenge these big guys in the box.”
Ramsey said that the post-start video review for every pitcher, including Rom, includes an acknowledgement of the pitches they got away with on that night but wouldn’t have at Camden Yards.
“We’re looking at where the pitches actually were and understanding, ‘That’s great that we got away with this one.’ It’s not a bad pitch but it needs to be better,” Ramsey said. “Our work this week is to get a better feel for whatever it is, so it’s not over the middle as much, or it’s a better height, whether it’s up or down. We know that when it happens up there, it gets punished.’ It’s absolutely a conversation. We build on the success but we obviously don’t ignore the things we quote-unquote get away with.”