Every ball player has a different journey. For Robert Charles Orlan, who goes by R.C., it started in Pennsylvania. Born in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, his family moved to Houston, Texas, and it was there that baseball became a part of his life.
“I had this plastic tee growing up, basically a big wiffle ball attached to a piece of string so I could hit all day, my parents didn’t have to do anything,” he said in a kind of self-deprecating tone of voice.
This experience is what got him started in baseball and he has not looked back. After moving around while growing up, Orlan played high school ball at Deep Run in Glen Allen, Virginia. As a senior he made All-State at Utility, pitching and playing both first base and outfield, and was an All-District Academic for three straight years. A left-handed pitcher, he batted from the right side, but soon realized pitching was the path to success.
“I was throwing harder and not hitting enough home runs,” Orlan recalled. “Since I’m left-handed and too short to play the outfield or first base, I figured I had run out of options.”
The 6’0”, 180 lb., Orlan did have the option of going into professional baseball out of high school. He was selected by the Dodgers in the 44th round of the 2009 First Year Player Draft. Instead of signing, he chose to go attend the University of North Carolina. At the time, it was a top five program in the country, and a top-notch public education. For Orlan, it was an easy choice to head south to Chapel Hill and join the Tar Heels.
“The combination of the prestige of the program and the good academics,” said Orlan about why making the decision to go to North Carolina was so easy. “We got to go to the [College] World Series my sophomore year and I got to pitch against Vanderbilt.”
Fellow teammates on that Tar Heels club include several Major Leaguers, including as the Pirates’ Colin Moran and Jacob Stallings, and the Angels’ Mike Morin. A management major, Orlan has 17 hours left to finish his degree and looks forward to having the sheet of paper marking him as a graduate of the University of North Carolina.
After getting only 21 innings on the mound his first two seasons for North Carolina, Orlan tossed 57 innings of relief for the 2012 Tar Heels club, putting up and 8-1 record and a 2.21 ERA with 66 strikeouts and only 11 walks. This time, it was the Washington Nationals who selected him in the 30th round of the draft.
He would start his professional career in 2013, with the Auburn Doubledays of the Rookie-level New York-Penn League. In that first season he started 11 games of the 13 that he pitched, but he returned to a more familiar relief role in 2014 and has only gotten three starting assignments over the next six years of his minor league career.
Selected last December by the Cleveland Indians during the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, this season Orlan has embarked on a new journey as he learns the ways of a new organization.
“So, let’s see how do I want to put this…,” he said with a deep sigh, as he decides how to talk about the differences in the way the Cleveland and Washington organizations operate. “They are more hands on with what they are looking for from me. They gave me a reason and a role right away. With the Nationals, having a one-inning role, trying to get left-handers out, where they [Cleveland] took a step back with analytics.”
Orlan compares the Indians’ use of analytic tools to having a second set of eyes on his performance. When he joined the organization, they noted his past performances showed his slider was a more effective pitch.
“It’s very high in all the percentiles you are looking for – misses, weak contact,” said Orlan, “so they wanted me to throw that more.”
Assigned to AA-Akron at the start of the season, he remained behind in Arizona doing rehab before heading east to join the RubberDucks for a few games. He was soon sent down to the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. Orlan would make five appearances during his two and a half weeks stay, before heading back up to Akron.
When he talks pitching, his tone of voice goes from amused and self-deprecating, to one more serious. It’s clear that for Orlan pitching is a serious business and he takes his craft seriously as well.
“I’m throwing a four-seam fastball, a curveball, and a slider,” he said about his pitches. “I threw a two-seamer last year, but I was getting hit too hard.”
He dropped the two-seam fastball and has relied on a mix of four-seam fastball and slider to get strikes early, then he can bring out his curveball as his out pitch. In five games for the Hillcats, he tossed 5.2 innings with eight strikeouts, three walks (one intentional), and posted a 1.59 ERA. Since getting promoted back to AA Akron on August 2, Orlan has thrown 4.2 innings, with four strikeouts, allowing only three hits, and tallying a perfect ERA of 0.00 in three games.
Asked about the differences between Florida and Arizona for baseball, he slides back into that dry, self-deprecating tone of voice.
“They say dry heat is a thing,” he paused for inflection. “When it hits 117 in the middle of the summer, I don’t care how dry it is.”
Clearly the more moderate temperatures of the east coast are more pleasing for Orlan, and better for playing baseball.
When he is not on the field, he loves grilling.
“I’ve got a pup back home so we go hang out in the back yard while I’m grilling up some steaks,” Orlan said about his hobby. “My dad had a Big Green Egg growing up, so I got one at my house. Ever since then I’ve been obsessed, I think is the right word.”
Though he never got the chance to grill for his teammates in Lynchburg, he did pitch effectively for the team. Now in his seventh minor league season he continues to toe the rubber when asked. With Progressive Field just a short drive away from Akron, continued success keeps Orlan in the conversation for the next step on his journey, a trip to the Major Leagues.