The Orioles pitching staff is a bit of a mess. They rank at, or near, the bottom of the league in most categories as a group, and there is unlikely to be much immediate help on the way to save them. One of the bright spots in the staff’s early season struggles, however, has been the performance of John Means and his seemingly un-hittable change-up.
The 25-year-old left-hander has made the most of his three relief appearances so far. Over 5.2 innings, Means has allowed just one run and struck out nine batters. For his efforts, manager Brandon Hyde has rewarded the southpaw with a spot start, the first of his big league career, during the upcoming series against the Oakland Athletics. It’s a big deal, especially for a rookie who was surprised he even made the opening day roster.
"At the beginning of camp, I thought I’d be one of the first guys sent to Minor League camp," says John Means, who saved the #Orioles today by stymying the Yankees for 3+ IP. "This is a nice feeling."— Joe Trezza (@JoeTrezz) April 1, 2019
Allowing Means to start against the Athletics, in particular, may be no coincidence from Hyde. Oakland has a right-handed heavy lineup. In fact, their current 25-man roster has nothing but right-handed hitters with the exception of three switch hitters. Against the southpaw Means, they will all swing the stick from the right side.
This would normally be a problem for a left-handed pitcher, and Means’s minor league numbers would agree. In Triple-A last season, right-handed hitters batted .307 against Means compared to .206 for lefties. It was more of the same in Double-A Bowie in 2018 (.207 vs. .265) and ‘17 (.244 vs. .287). But that was before he developed his current iteration of the change-up, which can be an equalizer against opposite-handed hitters.
This change-up was featured early and often against the Yankees on March 31. In relief of Dylan Bundy, Means tossed 79 pitches, allowed just one run (a Gary Sanchez solo home run) on five hits, struck out five and walked one over 3.1 innings en route to his first career MLB win.
Since then, Means has appeared twice more from the O’s bullpen, facing the Yankees (again) both times. Over those two outings, he has thrown 2.1 total innings and allowed no runs on no hits, one walk and four strikeouts.
Let’s go back to that change-up for a second. It’s nasty. At a certain point, the Yankee hitters must have known it was coming, and yet they still struggled to square it up. In that first appearance of the season, 44.3% (35 pitches) of Means’s offerings were the change-up. Why? Because it was working. Opposing lineups are hitting just .083 against Means’s change-up this season, and they are whiffing 51.6% of the time.
So far today, John Means has thrown 28 changeups. Of the 20 that have been swung at, 13 have been swinging strikes. pic.twitter.com/Qay6tRimAj— Lucas A (@DBITLefty) March 31, 2019
Means only pitched in one major league game last season, so there isn’t much data to work with, but in that outing he worked predominantly with his fastball and slider, while his change was a distant tertiary option. He has flipped the script so far in 2019, throwing his fastball 47.3% of the time to set up his change-up, which makes up 36.6% of his pitches.
Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun put together a great piece last week about Means’s most recent off-season. The entire article is worth your time, but a quick summary is that Means worked with two St. Louis-based pitching gurus to add strength and velocity to his fastball while also using modern pitch tracking technology to closely observe his pitches and realize how effective his change-up could be. He carried that into the spring and worked with Orioles minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt to perfect the offering. The outcome, so far, has been a pitcher with improved “stuff” and an MLB-level out pitch.
Again, this is all based off of limited data, but there are noticeable differences in the velocity of both Means’s fastball and change-up early on. He averaged 90.1 mph on his four-seamer in that late-season cameo in 2018. So far in 2019, he is up to 91.8 mph. On the other hand, he has slowed things down with the change-up. It was up at 83.4 mph in September, and now it is down to 80.9 mph. That gives him a current difference between the two pitches of 10.9 mph, an increase of more than 4 mph.
On top of that, data from Brooks Baseball seems to indicate that the lefty’s release point has also been slightly altered since that appearance in September.
There is certainly a difference. You can see in the chart that there was a sizable gap between his horizontal release point on his fastball and change-up in that one outing last season. Presumably, this was the same release point he used in the minors throughout the season. He seems to have narrowed that gap a bit in the bigs this season while also altering his entire arm slot by a few inches in every direction.
This combination of modified velocities, different arm slots and maybe even a tweaked grip have transformed Mean’s change-up from a show pitch used to keep hitters honest into a weapon that could solve some of the woes he had against right-handed hitters as a prospect.
How Means will perform in a traditional starter’s role remains to be seen. He was a starter for almost his entire minor league career, pitching to a 3.83 career ERA down on the farm to go along with 494 strikeouts in 622.2 innings. So it’s a position he is familiar with, albeit at a lower rung of the professional ladder.
Hyde is unlikely to stretch his rookie lefty too far beyond what he has already demonstrated this season. The manager indicated over the weekend that he would not be on an innings restriction, but said nothing regarding pitches or the number of times through the order. If how the new skipper has handled the rest of the staff is any indication and everything goes well for Means himself, he will be allowed to face the Oakland hitters twice and toss around those same 79 pitches he threw to the Yankees at the end of March.
If Means could last five or six innings every time out to the mound, then the Orioles may have stumbled upon the solution to one of their many problems. But even if he can’t, the O’s could still have a reliable multi-inning relief pitcher on their hands during an era of baseball where those pitchers have never been more valuable.