DELANO — The Baltimore Orioles flew south for the spring early this week, as the pitchers and catchers officially reported to spring training in Sarasota, FL Monday.
A pitcher in the Orioles’ minor league system the past three seasons, Delano product Zach Muckenhirn will join the flock of Baltimore big-leaguers Sunday, long before minor-league camp opens Thursday, March 8, when pitchers and catchers report.
“We had a really good conversation. We talked about his plan and what they are going to try to do during early camp, and some things to expect as for how the season is going to go,” said Muckenhirn of the call from the organization’s new pitching coordinator Chris Holt. “I was excited. I was glad to get that call.”
Holt told Muckenhirn he will be one of 22 players and one of just 10 pitchers assigned to early spring training, where they will play alongside the major leaguers on the 40-man roster.
What it means as far as his standing with the big club is anyone’s, including his own, guess.
“That’s what’s interesting — trying to figure out those details and trying to read between the lines,” Muckenhirn said Tuesday morning as he sipped his coffee at Bridge House Coffee & Cafe in downtown Delano.
Muckenhirn isn’t too worried about why he got the call for early spring training. He does know it is a big opportunity, which is all he wants.
“It’s better to get the call than not, because it puts you in a more exclusive group,” he said. “What it means as far as their roster plans, I’m not really sure. I just see it as an opportunity. The more you can separate yourself and the more you can get in front of the people who make those decisions, the better you will be.”
Holt explained to Muckenhirn that he will dress for the big league spring training games, but he wasn’t sure of his role during those games.
“I know I will be going to games and dressing, but, what I don’t know is how likely or how often I will be throwing in any of those games,” he said. “Once minor league camp starts, I will be throwing regularly.
During big league camp, Muckenhirn will be pitching for an Orioles organization that cleaned house in the offseason at the major league level. Out are veteran Manager Buck Showalter, pitching coach Roger McDowell and the rest of the big league coaching staff. Now, running the show is rookie manager Brandon Hyde, who hired Doug Brocail to be the team’s pitching coach.
“There are some guys on this list who (the Orioles) probably want to get a few innings, just to see him. Maybe they are looking to call a guy up in September, or maybe they see him fitting a role. They want to see guys pitching with the big-league club, it’s a little different type of exposure than pitching at the minor league facility,” said Muckenhirn. “It’s a much closer simulation (to the Major Leagues). It’s as close as you can get until the season starts.”
In Muckenhirn, Hyde and Brocail will see a left-hander with an over-the-top deliver who has been affective against, both, right- and left-handed batters. Muckenhirn’s fastball topped out at 96 miles-per-hour last season. He averaged more than one strikeout per inning, fanning 79 hitters in 64 1/3 innings in three minor-league stops.
Muckenhirn’s numbers were good, but he’s not sure that’s the reason he was called up to early camp.
“The fact that I was left-handed probably played a part. And, also, my velocity was notably higher than it was last year. It’s probably up three miles-per-hour than it was before,” said Muckenhirn, who’s fastball was in the 83-85 mile-per-hour range at Delano. “Velocity definitely plays in the bullpen and they will look for that. But, also, my strikeout numbers were way up. Those are probably the two biggest things — the strikeouts and the velocity — and being a lefty.”
In 2018, Muckenhirn pitched in 12 games, each, for Delmarva and Frederick at two levels of Class A, and finished at Class AA Bowie, where he appeared in 20 games and logged 27 innings.
Muckenhirn has blown batters away with his 96 mile-per-hour heat, but he has a lot more in his bag of tricks than just the fastball. Muckenhirn has the pitching arsenal of a starter, which he was in high school at Delano and in college at North Dakota, even though he, now, works out of the bullpen. He throws a four-seam fastball, curve ball, change-up and a slider.
“As of yet, nobody has told me anything different,” he said. “I’m kind of curious about when I get down there, and whether these new guys will have different ideas.”
With the new guys running the show in Baltimore and down through the minor league system, the communication between the organization and Muckenhirn was minimal during the offseason until he received the call from Holt. That left Muckenhirn unsure of when his report date would be.
“After the season ended, there was no indication one way or the other. There really isn’t much communication unless you are playing in the fall league, which I was not,” said Muckenhirn. “In my own way, I was thinking there might be a chance. You sort of have to prepare for both. You don’t want to commit your mind to thinking you are going early, and, then, if you don’t, you don’t want to be disappointed.
“I was the only call-up to double-A, so I was thinking that would make sense. But, at the same time, with new management, you never really knew.”
Muckenhirn returned home to Delano during the offseason. He worked out at the Tiger Activity Center, where he once played on the Delano basketball team, and kept his arm in shape at Starters Sports Training in Shakopee, where his pitches were recorded and tracked.
Being home for the winter allowed Muckenhirn to relax a bit after a grueling minor league season.
“It was good to be home, with familiar faces and in a familiar environment,” he said. “I enjoy being with my family.”
That family and his Delano friends and fans are behind Muckenhirn and his bid to be a big leaguer.
“We had the Stanley Cup, now lets get another championship trophy in here,” said Bridge House owner Dave Eidahl after serving Muckenhirn his coffee.
“As soon as you let them know I’m going (to spring training), everybody seems excited,” Muckenhirn said. “So, I want to go down there and give them something to be excited about.”