As expected, the 2019 Baltimore Orioles are not very good. They lost 115 games last year despite getting partial seasons from Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zack Britton, and others. None of those guys are around this season and the O's are on pace to lose 102 games even after beating the Red Sox on Monday night (BAL 4, BOS 1).
The Orioles may lose 100-something games again this year, but there is a bright spot: John Means. The rookie southpaw held the BoSox to one run in seven innings Monday night. He struck out four and improved to 4-3 with a 2.48 ERA in 32 2/3 innings.
Neither MLB.com nor Baseball America ranked the 26-year-old Means among Baltimore's top 30 prospects coming into the season. He's a former 11th-round pick who steadily climbed the minor league ladder, made his big-league debut last September, and won a roster spot this spring training.
After opening the season in the bullpen, Means quickly pitched his way into the rotation, and Monday night was his fifth start. It was the fourth time he allowed no more than one earned run and it was the second time he faced the Red Sox -- Means held Boston to one run in five innings on April 14 -- so it's not like the BoSox went in blind. They saw him less than a month ago.
Means is not a particularly hard thrower -- his fastball averaged 91.9 mph Monday night -- so he gets his outs with weak contact. His 20.3 percent hard contact rate going into Monday night was the lowest among the 155 pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched this year by nearly two full percentage points (Cardinals righty John Gant was second at 22.2 percent).
On Monday, Means allowed 20 balls in play and the average exit velocity was 82 mph. Coming into the day there were 168 instances of an individual pitcher allowing at least 20 balls in play in a game this year and only five managed an exit velocity under 82 mph. All five came in a National League Park, so no DH:
- April 30: Sandy Alcantara, Marlins vs. Indians in Miami (79.1 mph)
- March 31: Sandy Alcantara, Marlins vs. Rockies (80.0 mph)
- April 15: Joey Lucchesi, Padres vs. Rockies (80.7 mph)
- May 5: Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks vs. Rockies (81.0 mph)
- April 18: Zach Eflin, Phillies vs. Rockies (81.1 mph)
So, uh, the Rockies might have some exit velocity problems. Anyway, back to Means. His 82 mph average exit velocity Monday was the lowest this season against a lineup that included the DH and it's not all that close either. The previous low belonged to Rays righty Tyler Glasnow. He held the O's to an 83.1 mph exit velocity on April 16. Means was a full mile-an-hour below that Monday.
While he might not light up radar guns, Means has an excellent dead fish changeup that helps his fastball play up, and creates a lot of off-balance swings. The Red Sox swung and misses only four times at 25 changeups Monday, but, going into the start, Means had an incredible 41.1 percent swing and miss rate on his changeup this season. The league average is 31.7 percent. He's well above that.
Means did not always have that changeup though. In fact, it's a relatively new pitch. As the Baltimore Sun's Jon Meoli wrote last month, Means worked with minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt -- new GM Mike Elias brought Holt over from the Astros -- and personal instructor Austin Meine to develop the pitch over the winter. From Meoli:
Means immediately took to the technology, such as the Rapsodo camera and radar system and the high-speed cameras that could give him instant feedback on what his pitches did, what worked and what didn't.
"That was a big focal point for us, honestly, being able to see what his ball actually does, and that let him have the understanding of how to use his repertoire has been huge," Meine said.
Meine said they recognized that his changeup was a strong pitch by looking at the data available on public sites such as BrooksBaseball.net, and when it was examined in context of the rest of his arsenal, they started working to maximize what Means had.
"We could see pretty quickly that the changeup was a pitch that has a lot of depth to it, arm-side movement, and played out as a plus pitch," Meine said. "Now, it's more developing a gameplan for, 'How can we use our repertoire to set that pitch up and make it more effective?' "
With all due respect to Means, he was a fairly nondescript pitching prospect prior to this season, one who never appeared on an Orioles top prospects list. Being 26 and facing a third straight season in Triple-A is not a great place to be, career-wise. Means and the new front office worked together over to winter, came up with ways to improve, and the result is an interesting southpaw with one of the nastiest changeups in the game.
The season is young and we'll see how Means fares as he goes through the league a second time -- as noted earlier, Monday night was the second time the Red Sox faced Means in less than a month -- but, right now, he is a bright spot on a rebuilding Orioles club. The improved changeup is a tangible reason to believe in his newfound success, and the Orioles are the land of opportunity right now. Perform well and you'll keep getting chances. Means has certainly earned his.