Red Sox reliever Kaleb Ort made his major league debut last season, at age 29. At first glance, there was a lot to be excited about. He served as the WooSox closer in 2021, posting a sub-3 ERA and converting 19/21 saves (90.5%) while holding opponents to a .233 batting average. His average fastball velocity was 96 mph, and he had a mound presence that felt more like a grizzly veteran than a rookie.
He only recorded 1 out in 2021 for the Red Sox, but the flamethrower was definitely an arm to watch for entering the 2022 campaign. Fast forward to today, and Ort’s future in the Red Sox bullpen remains an uncertainly. His numbers in AAA are still impressive, but his stuff has not yet translated on a consistent basis at the next level.
In 21.2 total big league innings, his ERA is over 6 and WHIP is nearly 2. Opponents have an average exit velocity (92.0), expected batting average, and expected slugging percentage against Ort that are all above the MLB average. Despite having an above average fastball velocity, even his spin rate ranks very low (33rd percentile).
Kaleb Ort struggled in 2022, but if he makes adjustments he has the opportunity to earn a permanent role in the 2023 Red Sox bullpen
His slider is a bright spot in his otherwise underwhelming advanced metrics. The horizontal (10.0 inches) and vertical movement (36.1 inches) on his breaking pitch are both above MLB average, so there’s reason for the Red Sox to hold out hope.
Unfortunately, it is possible that Kaleb Ort has AAAA stuff… great in the minor leagues, but too hittable for MLB-level talent. However, there are 3 things he can work on ahead of the 2023 season to maximize his chances to be an impact arm for the Red Sox.
- Lower his BB rate: Ort has a high walk rate (11.5%) relative to the MLB average (8.4%). He needs to attack hitters and limit traffic on the bases that is attributed to granting free passes. Not throwing strikes consistently means he is putting hitters into favorable counts, and even when he doesn’t walk them he needs to become more 1-dimensional to work his way back into counts. This puts the hitter at a significant advantage, and they will square balls up more regularly. Ort’s ability to limit his walks going forward would be a game-changer, and it will allow him to be less predictable with his pitch selection later in counts.
- Establish a better pitch mix: Ort currently throws his fastball over 50% of the time, and his slider is thrown at a 35% rate. This means he’s essentially a 2-pitch pitcher. He features a changeup occasionally (7.5% of the time), but it’s not clear if establishing a 3rd pitch is part of the long-term plan. Regardless, varying his pitch selection to be a more balanced pitcher would benefit him going forward. His fastball velocity is good, but a below-average spin rate makes it more susceptible to hard contact. If he throws his slider for strikes in fastball counts, he will be able to keep hitter off-balanced more effectively. If he adds a 3rd pitch that he can throw in any count, it would only further serve his cause.
- Avoid the nuclear inning: Ort has surrendered 13 earned runs in 2022, but 10 of those were from 2 of his 17 appearances (1.2 innings). Being more consistent next season and avoiding complete meltdowns like this will help his case for establishing a bigger role in the Red Sox bullpen. If you remove those 2 rough outings, he has posted a 1.37 ERA across 15 appearances (19.2 innings). That’s a big “if”, but it’s still noteworthy.
With the advanced technology that is available to players today, baseball has become a game of constant adjustments. A 95-97 mph fastball is not intimidating to MLB hitters, and they will have a lot of success against pitchers that throw a non-elite pitch over 50% of the time. We’ll see if Kaleb Ort works on optimizing his pitch repertoire and/or usage during the offseason.
If he can make the necessary adjustments, he may work his way into the same conversation of pitchers that could be a big part of the organization’s long-term future. Whether or not his slider will emerge as an impact pitch in a similar way as Zack Kelly’s changeup remains to be seen.