Alex Pham worked out of the bullpen for almost his entire college career and his first two years of pro ball. He nonetheless kept adding to an extensive repertoire of pitches, always keeping his options open.
Turns out emerging as a promising potential starter is one of them.
Pham struck out 76 batters in 51 1/3 innings at High-A Aberdeen over 12 appearances this season, earning a promotion to Double-A Bowie. In his first start for the Baysox, he tossed five scoreless innings, yielding a pair of singles and a walk while striking out three Sunday against Altoona.
“It’s definitely different,” Pham said. “It’s more comfortable coming out of the bullpen, but we tried to do something new and get out of the comfort zone and try to see if I can push the boundaries a little bit and get better at what I do. It seems to work out just fine.”
Pham’s work has been one of the more intriguing developments in Baltimore’s farm system this season, especially considering his background. The Union City, California product made only seven starts in four seasons at the University of San Francisco, going 9-11 with a 3.60 ERA and 11 saves over 73 appearances for the West Coast Conference school.
The right-hander was eligible to play another year for the Dons thanks to the NCAA’s blanket waiver for all athletes who lost most of the spring of 2020 to pandemic cancellations, but Pham felt he was definitely prepared to turn pro after his senior year. The Orioles selected him in the 19th round of the 2021 draft.
He struggled in his first pro game that summer, allowing five runs — four earned — in 2/3 of an inning in a Florida Complex League game. But Pham posted a 1.64 ERA over his final seven appearances, including three scoreless outings at Single-A Delmarva to finish the year.
Six more outings at Delmarva to begin 2022 quickly led to a bump up to Aberdeen in late May, and Pham began to have preliminary discussions about building up for a greater workload to eventually become a starter. But within a month of joining the IronBirds, Pham suffered a freak injury while covering home plate and didn’t return to Aberdeen until mid-August.
His 30 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings at Aberdeen suggested promise, but the greatest asset he had was a variety of choices on the mound.
In college, Pham utilized a fastball and curveball while trying to figure out a slider and eventually coming out with a cutter. Once in the Orioles’ organization, he was encouraged to develop a changeup and eventually found a splitter that has since proven exceptionally effective.
“At this level, hitters are a lot better, so it’s kind of like a chess match out there,” Pham said. “They know what I’m going into a game with. Not letting them know what’s coming is really nice.”
After a rocky first start — when he surrendered seven runs in 3 1/3 innings — few at the Class A level had any idea what was coming this spring.
He gradually stretched out to four innings in mid-April, then five by May 6th. Over five starts in May, he went 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA, striking out 34 while yielding just 10 hits in 23 1/3 innings.
Pham’s last two starts for Aberdeen were arguably his best. He breezed through five no-hit innings on June 10th, striking out 11. A week later, he gave up a solo homer and walked two while fanning nine over six innings.
He owned a 2.45 ERA at Aberdeen, and opponents were hitting .163 against him at the time of his promotion.
“He works extremely hard at what he does,” said outfielder Jud Fabian, who was teammates with Pham in Aberdeen and was promoted to Bowie at the same time. “Every day, he does something different to work on it. It’s been extremely fun to watch, especially being in the outfield when he’s pitching. He gets a lot of strikeouts and not much hard contact.”
The initial returns at Bowie are encouraging for the 5-foot-11 Pham. He got through five innings Sunday in 67 pitches and didn’t allow a runner past first.
“It’s been a lot of fun just trying to experiment,” Pham said. “It’s what makes this fun. We go out and basically do the same thing every day. I’m just trying to find little ways to keep pushing the needle forward.”
Report: Orioles promoting Westburg: According to a report by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Orioles will purchase the contract of infielder Jordan Westburg. Westburg, who was the 30th pick in the 2020 draft, was hitting .295 with 18 home runs and 54 RBIs and a .939 OPS at Triple-A Norfolk.
Westburg has played mostly shortstop and third base this season as well as second base, left and right field.