We’re reaching the point of the 2019 season where I am no longer coveting the number of games the Orioles have left, something we all do when a team is winning more games than it’s losing. Now I’m counting how many days before it’s over.
Between DJ Stewart becoming a Twitter meme after overrunning a somewhat routine fly, slipping, and taking a rainmaker off of his noggin that gave him a concussion, and Anthony Santander exemplifying how sweaty one’s hands can be playing in Baltimore’s 110% humidity, it’s hard to not just say “get it over with.”
And recently, even the Orioles’ best pitcher, John Means, has started to join the malaise.
Along with Santander and Trey Mancini, Means would be among the triumvirate of Orioles that have gone above and beyond their respective calls of duty. A first-half ERA and a top-20 BB% of 2.50 and 6.6% respectively earned Means one of the most improbably All-Star bids in recent memory. At a time when Orioles fans are willing to latch onto anything and everything with a whiff of positivity, Means’ first-half was that and more. He owned the outer half of the plate to righties, and he tunneled the hell out of his straight-changeup with that fastball. His fastball command was good to both sides of the plate, and showed a knack for throwing “quality” strikes, something no other Orioles pitcher has shown an ability to do.
The last 19 or so innings for Means haven’t strayed too much from that plan of attack, but the results have been much more volatile.
Here you have Means’ first-half fastball placement on the left, and his changeup usage on the right. There’s some deep red in terms of his changeup being placed right on the black away from righties, and his fastball, so spread out, doesn’t have but one area of heavy deployment.
Means, owning the 12th-best changeup in baseball (in terms of weighted value) over the first-half, used it play up a fastball that was already played up after a winter of velocity increase. As the season has progressed however, he’s backed off if it for whatever reason.
It’s not like Means’ slider is bad. In terms of horizontal movement, his slider is identical to Matthew Boyd’s, and as it pertains to vertical movement, his slider breaks downward nearly identical to Brad Peacock. If you’re going to emulate anyone’s sliders, Boyd’s and Peacock’s aren’t bad comps. And most impressively, this all comes second to a fastball with spin in the 75th percentile, a kind of fastball with ride through the zone second only to Justin Verlander.
It’s a good pitch, and is hardly the reason for a second-half ERA of 7.11. What’s more confusing is him not trusting his fastball. Or better yet, what happened to the pitch’s execution.
As it was before, the left image illustrates Means’ fastball placement over the second-half, and his changeup on the right. Again, the changeup is being manipulated down and away to righties, but his fastball command has greatly suffered. Instead of owning the corners of the plate, he’s plotted real estate in the heart of the zone akin to his Orioles compadres.
Whether this has to do with him seeing real major league action for the first time, and this season putting maybe not more innings on his arm but certainly more STRESSFUL innings on his body, it’s understandable as to why he’s hit the injured list twice in relation to ailments to his pitching arm.
Maybe he’s hit a wall, or maybe’s he’s just off. Perhaps he’s backed off of his sneaky fastball because he doesn’t trust himself to guide it to the boundaries of the zone, and that would make plenty of sense.
Pitching at the major league level is hard, incredibly hard as Ron Washington might say. If anyone’s earned some leeway, it’s Means, and I’ll continue to give him the benefit of the doubt. As smart a pupil as he is, I’d expect him to make a change or two in order to fix this bug, considering he’s given up 15 runs in his last 19 innings.
He trusted his stuff in the first half, and he had reason to. Here’s to him finding purpose to trusting it again.