Roughly three weeks into the new season, the Orioles, as a collective, haven’t played nearly as bad as I, you, or anyone else probably thought they would. Considering this team has already won 17% of the games it did a season ago with 85% of the schedule still remaining, it really could be worse!
The Orioles are 8-16 with a run differential of -56. Of those 16 losses, the Orioles have scored four or fewer runs 13 times, and have surrendered at least seven runs nine times. While both the Orioles offense and pitching staff has had their respective issues, the organization isn’t at a juncture where counting wins and losses has a purpose.
Development trumps all else. This process will include weeding out the likes of Mike Wright, Josh Lucas and likely most of the current Orioles roster. A lot of these guys won’t be around in 2020 or 2021. Hell, a lot of these guys may not make it through the summer. The Orioles are devoid of major league talent, and you are currently seeing the consequences.
While some may rightfully posture at the idea that the Orioles may give up a bazillion home runs, or that certain young players haven’t hit at a level conducive to major league success, there are some good things are happening. Among the bright spots in what’s shaking out to be another long season for Orioles fans has been the crafty John Means.
An 11th-round pick in 2014 who turns 26 in a matter of days, Means was the kind of minor leaguer who more or less chugged along. He got outs, threw strikes, and kept the baseball within the field of play, something a lot of Orioles aren’t doing at the moment. But at every level of his professional career, he’s never had this kind of success.
Right now, Means has an ERA of 1.72 to pair with a FIP of 3.92 over 15.2 innings, but Means is unlikely to ever be someone who controls his own destiny. His average fastball velocity at the moment is 91.9 mph, and it’s unlikely there is more to be found after a gaining a couple miles per hour over the winter. He has yet to hit the rough patch that most his teammates find themselves in.
This new graphic from Baseball Savant does a really good job of illustrating how Means maneuvers the strike zone. The fastball-changeup pitch pair makes up for more than 88 percent of his attack to home plate. With 75 percent of his batters faced being right-handers, you can see how he tunnels his changeup with his fastball while also staying out of the middle of the plate. That combo has proven deadly, and has given rise to a pitch no one saw being so effective.
New pitching coordinator Chris Holt worked with Means during the spring to further his changeup from an average secondary pitch into a pitch that currently creates swings and misses at a rate of 24 percent. Means, being someone who has tremendous feel for his simple delivery, is able to sell the pitch to hitters and consistently throw it in parts of the zone unbecoming of hard contact. It also has surprisingly-late depth and run.
With an uptick in velocity added in, it makes the changeup that much better. Hitters are no longer sitting at a fastball-changeup speed differential of eight or nine miles per hour, but more like 10 to 12 miles per hour. In a game where missing barrels is of the utmost importance, that velocity disparity is massive.
A lot of this reinforces the notion that the Orioles are in good hands. This regime has already seen players like Means and others benefit from the introduction of not only new technology, but from simply soaking in newer ideas. We’re not through April, so there is still an absurd amount of baseball left. Depending on your threshold for patience, that is either a good thing, or the worst proposition in the history of man. But Means’ inexplicable jump is proof of what the Orioles are hoping to find.
Can you locate your fastball to the outer edges of the plate? Can you induce swings and misses with your secondary pitches? Are you capable of doing these things through six or seven innings? Is all of your stuff even good enough?
On the mound, these questions are deep. And with the way the Orioles are playing, they’ll continue to develop and search for pitchers who have the answers. So far, Means has proven himself to be one of them.