It was a moment that didn’t seem all that outlandish or special. John Means was rolling through his Opening Day start against the Red Sox, having pitched six shutout innings, so Brandon Hyde sent him out for another inning. The seventh went the way the previous six had, Means exited the game when it was done, and the Orioles won 3-0.
The reason this is worth pointing out? Because by just sending Means out there, Hyde was making a statement. Means is his ace this season, and he’s not afraid to treat him like one.
Baseball has trended away from this kind of decision. Teams have embraced the notion of shorter starts and fresher arms each inning, and moved away from the idea that the starter gets every opportunity to finish what he starts. Over the years, the term “third time through the order” has become a household phrase. Hitters pick up on the pitcher’s delivery and pitch movement on their third time seeing them, and because of that, their results improve. And because of that, several teams won’t let their pitchers bother.
And that’s where Means was on Friday. The Orioles were up 2-0, Means had finished six innings, and he had recorded the last out by retiring Enrique Hernandez on a pop-up, beginning his third trip through the Red Sox lineup. When the bottom of the seventh came up, the Red Sox had the meat of their lineup — Alex Verdugo, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers — coming up. And, just to add it to the circumstance, Means was pitching in short sleeves on a cold day. Not exactly conducive for staying limber out there.
All of this is to show that Hyde had plenty of reasons to go with the trend and summon a reliever for the trip through the heart of the lineup. Instead, he stuck with Means, the leader of his rotation, and Means rewarded him by getting Verdugo on a groundout, Martinez on a strikeout and Bogaerts on a fly ball to center. The inning took 20 pitches.
Hyde certainly had no shortage of reasons to stick with Means, either. He had given no indication he was slowing down, having retired 15 straight batters, and his fastball-changeup combination was giving the Red Sox the same fits it had been since the first inning. The notion of sticking with a pitcher who’s throwing a one-hitter doesn’t seem like much of a dilemma.
But the Orioles were not up 6-0. The decision to leave Means in, were he more spent on a difficult day to play baseball than he or Hyde realized, could have meant major consequences right away, even if the plan was to go to the bullpen at the first sign of trouble. The first sign of trouble could still provide plenty of damage.
With a big lead, or with Means facing the bottom of the order, the margin for error would have been relatively comfortable. As it was, Hyde was rolling the dice. And even if he was just playing a hunch, just looking to stick with the hot hand, his decision gave the impression that he’s willing to trust Means in a tricky spot. That’s the type of commitment normally made to the traditional, old-school “ace.”
If this still doesn’t seem like a notable decision, that Means’s success to that point and low pitch count — 77 through six innings — made Hyde’s call an easy one to make, consider that many teams in that spot have made the opposite choice. Last year, in what has so far been the most glaring example of the quick hook, Tampa Bay had a 1-0 lead on the Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series, and Blake Snell was in his sixth inning of work having allowed one hit while striking out nine. He had thrown 69 pitches.
When Los Angeles began the sixth with a pop-up and then a single, the Rays made the switch. Snell, who was absolutely dominating the Dodgers, didn’t get the chance to complete even the second trip through the lineup. Whether being cautious with a one-run lead or stubbornly refusing to let the Dodgers get a third crack at Snell, they went to the bullpen. The decision immediately backfired.
We’ve seen examples this season as well. Jose Berrios had pitched six no-hit innings on April 3 and finished the sixth by retiring the first batter of his third trip through the lineup, but with a 1-0 lead the Twins pulled him after 84 pitches. That decision worked; Minnesota won 2-0.
On Monday night, Jake deGrom was ahead 2-0 and had thrown six three-hit innings and 77 pitches when the Mets lifted him after striking out Bryce Harper as the third batter of his third time through the lineup. That decision failed; the Mets lost 5-3.
It’s very possible, even probable, that had Means been in that exact situation from Opening Day as a Ray, Twin or Met, he’d have been pulled. But Hyde, with a tone-setting victory on the line, went with his guy to do what an ace would do. And like an ace, Means delivered.
We’re only four games in, and it remains to be seen how many similar gambles Hyde will take. But if Means was wondering how much trust his manager has in him, he got an answer right out of the gate.