By Paul Folkemer
When 25-year-old Orioles right-hander Mychal Givens made his major league debut June 24, it didn’t attract national acclaim. Givens pitched the bottom of the eighth inning at Boston’s Fenway Park during a game the Orioles lost, 5-1. Givens retired all three Red Sox batters he faced, then was sent back to the minor leagues the next day.
On paper, it was a fairly routine introduction to the majors. Givens’ journey to the big leagues, however, was not.
Three years before Givens stepped on a big league mound for the first time, his career was at a potential breaking point. He was sputtering in the low minors and losing his luster as a prospect.
Oh — and he was a shortstop.
The Orioles selected Givens out of H.B. Plant High School in Tampa, Fla., with their second-round pick in 2009. Givens was a pitcher and position player in high school, but the O’s had their eye on him as a shortstop of the future. That’s the position at which he began his professional career for the Birds in 2010, when he split time among four affiliates.
By 2012, though, Givens had made little progress as a position player, stalling out at Low-A Delmarva. He struggled especially with his bat, posting a .243/.330/.306/.635 line in 2012 during 100 games with the Shorebirds, with two home runs in 388 plate appearances.
As Givens’ struggles piled up, his prospect status evaporated. Baseball America — which ranked Givens as a top-10 Orioles prospect prior to the 2010 and 2011 seasons — left him out of its top 30 the next two years. Givens was beginning to look like another failed pick from the Orioles’ disastrous 2009 draft, which had yet to produce a single major leaguer entering 2015.
But as Givens struggled to hit, his strong arm at shortstop — and his history as a successful high school pitcher — convinced the Orioles that his career could be salvaged if he converted back to the mound full time. After the 2012 season, Orioles director of player development Brian Graham met with Givens to propose the switch.
“He just asked me to come into spring training [and] throw some bullpens, see how it looks, and we’ll make a decision after that,” Givens said.
Givens didn’t need much convincing. He was on board with the idea immediately, knowing that converting to pitching gave him a better chance to one day reach the majors.
“Whatever gets me into a big league uniform, that’s all that matters,” Givens said. “I was a two-way prospect out of high school. … I felt I was a strong prospect either way, as a position player or a pitcher.”
Givens’ conversion wasn’t unprecedented in baseball history. Several other major league hurlers began their professional careers as position players, including Oakland Athletics All-Star lefty closer Sean Doolittle — once a minor league first baseman — and Los Angeles Dodgers righty closer Kenley Jansen, a former catcher. Still, the odds were stacked against Givens, considering the degree of difficulty involved in essentially restarting his career from scratch.
Givens’ new life as a pitcher began in Delmarva in 2013. Having spent three full years away from the mound, Givens needed some time to get back into the feel for pitching. He had to retrain his body to adapt to the new role.
“I just [had to get] my muscles to react to pitching every day,” Givens said. “Getting my muscles to understand the fact that [I’m] throwing the ball consistently.”
Givens’ first season on the mound as a professional wasn’t outstanding. He pitched to a 4.22 ERA during 28 relief appearances in 2013. Although he showed great velocity on his fastball — ratcheting it up to the high 90s on the radar gun — he struggled to throw strikes, walking 19 batters in 42.2 innings.
In 2014, Givens spent time with Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. He cut his ERA to a combined 3.53 between the two levels and notched 55 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. But his lack of control continued to be his Achilles’ heel. On average, Givens walked six batters per nine innings during his 36 games that season.
Givens’ herky-jerky pitching motion — one he has used since high school — required some fine-tuning. The side-arming Givens delivers the ball from a three-quarters angle, uncoiling his right arm in a slingshot-type motion toward the plate. The unconventional mechanics allow for greater deception against hitters, but early on during Givens’ conversion, he had trouble staying consistent with his delivery.
Prior to the 2015 season, Orioles manager Buck Showalter, intrigued by Givens’ pitching potential, invited him to the Birds’ January minicamp. That gave Givens an opportunity to refine his mechanics with Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti.
The adjustments paid immediate dividends. Givens started the 2015 season at Bowie and soon emerged as a dominant reliever. During his first 22 games, Givens racked up 12 saves and posted a 1.60 ERA. He had a swing-and-miss arsenal, racking up 54 strikeouts in 39.1 innings. And most encouragingly, he improved his control significantly, cutting his walks-per-nine rate to 2.5.
Givens made such a strong impression on the Orioles that, when a need arose for a reliever in the big league pen in late June, they bypassed Triple-A Norfolk entirely and promoted Givens straight from Bowie. Givens — in just his third year since converting to pitching — was a big leaguer for the first time.
After Givens’ one-game audition with the Birds, he returned to Bowie for more than a month — not because he wasn’t major league ready, but because the Orioles had a fully stacked, veteran bullpen with few optionable relievers. Still, the O’s were anxious to bring him back as soon as they got the chance. And when right-hander Tommy Hunter was dealt to the Chicago Cubs July 31, a spot freed up for Givens.
Givens made the most of his extended chance in the majors. He began his career with five scoreless outings, striking out 10 batters in his first 7.1 big league innings. Givens deftly blended his sinking fastball with a slider and changeup to keep opposing hitters off balance, striking out at least one batter during each of his first 10 appearances.
Givens also fit in seamlessly with his fellow relievers, both on and off the field.
“He’s performed very well, first of all, and he’s handling himself really well,” Orioles veteran right-hander Darren O’Day said. “Seems like he’s all ears. He’s asking some good questions and representing himself really well.
“We really haven’t had to do anything to go out of our way to make him comfortable. … He seems like he’s been doing it for a while. He’s got a good idea of what he’s doing. I think being on both sides of the game, being a hitter and a pitcher, has kind of given him some good perspective.”
Givens, meanwhile, has been eager to learn from his veteran teammates in the bullpen.
“[They told me], just go out there and do what you did in the minor leagues,” Givens said. “You’re very much capable of doing it up here. Just have a routine, be consistent and don’t approach everything like it’s your last game.”
Givens isn’t in any danger of pitching his last game anytime soon, at least if he’s able to sustain his recent success. In fact, he could end up being a pivotal part of the Orioles’ future bullpen. With O’Day — the Orioles’ All-Star set-up man — a pending free agent after the 2015 season, Givens could step into a late-inning relief role in 2016. Further down the line, Givens could be a closer candidate as well.
But whatever the future may hold for Givens, he has already achieved his dream of reaching the major leagues. Even if required a unique, circuitous path to get there.
Issue 213: September 2015