PITTSBURGH – In isolation, it is certainly not a make-or-break game for Luis Ortiz.
However, when the 24-year-old right-hander takes the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates to start Wednesday afternoon against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park, it will begin a stretch that certainly could define the rookie’s future.
Ortiz has made 14 previous starts and one relief appearance for the Pirates. There have been times when he has looked like he could develop into an above-average major-league starting pitcher and other times when he appears to have no business being in the big leagues.
On May 22, Ortiz was outstanding when he held the hard-hitting Texas Rangers to two runs in 7.2 innings for his first major-league win. Then there was the July 4 outing against the Dodgers in Los Angeles when he was rocked for six runs in 3.1 innings, leading to a demotion to Triple-A Indianapolis.
Ortiz pitched six times for Indy since then and was 2-3 with a 7.66 ERA. He gave up five runs in 4.2 innings in his last outing, a no-decision against St. Paul last Friday.
That performance certainly does not inspire a whole lot of confidence that Ortiz can mow through the Cardinals’ lineup, even if St. Louis is on course to finish in last place for the first time since 1990.
The Pirates, though, are running out of pitching options with 36 games remaining in the season. They have just two traditional starters at this point with Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo.
And Oviedo is also being watched closely. The 25-year-old has already pitched a career-high 145.1 innings over 26 starts.
The Pirates say they feel Ortiz is ready to return to the big leagues. Of course, it would be a first if they said he shouldn’t be in the majors.
“We sent him down, and one of the core messages was just to make sure that his foundation was similar to the way it was last year when we saw him come to the big leagues,” Shelton said. “We feel like we’re making progress toward that. Working on the fastball, the fastball velocity has been there. Overall, the delivery has been cleaner. And foundational, he’s in a way better spot.”
The concern with Ortiz has been an inability to add a third pitch to complement his fastball and slider. Like many pitchers, Ortiz has struggled to master the changeup or even make it a decent offering. The slider is a work in progress, too, though not to the point of the changeup.
“You cannot rely on one pitch in the big leagues,” Shelton said. “You cannot rely on one pitch without lack of execution. The foundation of that, besides the delivery, was execution of pitches. Not just the fastball but all three pitches.”
Ortiz has also had a drop in velocity this season. He averaged 98.4 mph on his four-seam fastball during his first four career starts in 2022 but that number is down to 96.1 this year.
Again, the Pirates say they are not concerned. Of course, they never seem concerned about anything, so take the lack of concern for what it’s worth.
“I think we’re going to see more 95-98 than we are 100,” Shelton said. “Last year was a little bit of adrenaline from a kid who went from Double-A to Triple-A in the big leagues. There are very few guys who sit at 100 and even sit at 99. If he’s 95-98, I think we’re going to be in a good spot.”
Ortiz is kind of hard to figure out. He came out of nowhere to become a top prospect last season but has been so-so at best in 2023.
Minor-league statistics aren’t always predictive of major-league performance for pitchers. However, his 4.09 ERA over 319 innings in the farm system gives some reason for pause, at least in my eyes.
So, I haven’t been so willing to jump on the Ortiz hype train. Now, he gets a chance to prove me wrong and, more importantly, establish himself as a long-term big-league pitcher.