Luis Ortiz: The Young Flamethrower

3-1-23 – By Michael Castrignano – @412DoublePlay on Twitter

On September 16, 2021, Luis Ortiz had just finished his last outing of the regular season for the Bradenton Marauders, pitching 4 innings, 3 hits, 3 runs (all unearned), 1 walk and 5 strikeouts. It was a pretty good end to the season as he posted a 3.09 ERA with a 5-3 record over 19 starts. The then 22-year-old flame-throwing Ortiz likely would not have guessed he would be making his major league debut less than one year later.

With a fastball that touches 100 with movement and a slider which cuts through the zone like a knife, Ortiz would make one more start for the Marauders that year – game 2 of the Southeast Low-A Championship Series – posting 6 innings of 1 run ball off 4 hits, 2 walks and 9 strikeouts. This was part of a series which Bradenton swept, including the 6-1 winner behind Ortiz.

His final start of 2022 wasn’t quite so memorable – at least not in a positive sense – as he only recorded two outs while allowing 6 runs off 3 hits and 3 walks. 

He hung a slider to Albert Pujols. Hung another one to Corey Dickerson. Left a few fastballs over a big part of the plate. Professional hitters will capitalize on these mistakes.

There’s growing pains in the game of baseball and Ortiz came out of the outing having gained some valuable experience for just how opponents adjust.

“Those two outings at the end of the season gave me an idea of how the big leagues really are,” Ortiz said. “I had Pujols at two strikes and threw a slider — I thought it was a good slider — and he ended up getting a hit, anyway.” 

Across three levels of professional ball last season, Ortiz posted a 4.56 ERA with 155 strikeouts in 140.1 innings. His ascent through the system, bypassing High-A Greensboro, and arriving in Pittsburgh was unprecedented. 

Signing for $25,000 as an international free agent in 2018, Ortiz was a 19-year-old pitcher in the Dominican Republic, shading on the older side for international signings. A fastball/slider pitcher, he shot up through the ranks collecting some notable moments in the season following his championship in Bradenton. 

Skips High-A entirely.

Two immaculate innings pitched while at Altoona.

Six innings of no-hit ball in Indianapolis.

Debuts in the major leagues with remarkable initial success.

What comes next?

Ortiz is technically in competition this spring for a rotation spot, all but assured a few months ago, but less likely now with the off-season additions of free agents Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez. Throwing a triple-digit fastball and slicing slider, a big step this off-season was building on his change-up, which he threw just 5.1% of the time last year.

I talked with beat writer for the Pirates, Justice delos Santos, about his work on the pitch this off-season. “When you have a fastball that can touch 100MPH and, you know, it’s a fastball with some life to it, that’s a valuable weapon to have,” Justice told me. He went on to say that the pitch is almost a necessity for a pitcher to have in the event one of the other pitches isn’t working on a given day. 

Using the fastball to set up an off-speed pitch is typical but it will help to have another pitch to go to when one of your other pitches aren’t working on a given day. We’ve seen a number of pitchers coming into spring training this year having added or modified pitches to try to fool opposing hitters. It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse. 

Ortiz made his Spring Training debut looking sharp using mostly his fastball and slider: 2 innings, 2 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks and 1 strikeout. The lone strikeout came on his second change-up of the game: a 90-MPH pitch that dropped low in the zone.

I was able to watch him working in the bullpen prior to his start and he was throwing the change-up (as best I could tell from 10 feet above him) but seemed to be focused on his main fastball/slider stuff yesterday in his first outing. I would expect he expands a bit more in future starts this spring.

The addition of the change-up and the ability to use it as a weapon specifically against left-handed hitters will determine whether or not he can be a future ace in this rotation. He will likely return to Indianapolis to open the year but it won’t be long before he’s back in Pittsburgh reaching triple digits and doing some special stuff.

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