When Orioles ace John Means unexpectedly exited his June 5 start in the first inning, manager Brandon Hyde’s bullpen was forced to cover far more innings than would be hoped. Since Means landed on the injured list with a left shoulder strain, that’s been the case more often than not.
Means will make his first rehab start for High-A Aberdeen on Sunday, the next step as he works to rejoin the Orioles’ rotation after the All-Star break. Had he stayed healthy, Means very well could’ve spent part of the break in Denver, representing the Orioles as an All-Star for the second time in three years. Instead, his absence has left Baltimore’s rotation largely devoid of consistency and effectiveness.
Entering Saturday night’s game — in which Jorge López allowed four runs and 11 baserunners in 4 ⅔ innings — Baltimore’s starters had an 8.13 ERA since the game after Means’ early exit, by far the highest in baseball in that span. While pitching the fifth-fewest innings, they’ve allowed the fifth-most home runs. It’s been seven games since one of them completed five innings, a feat accomplished only eight times in 25 games since Means’ injury. In that time, their strikeout-to-walk ratio is the lowest of any rotation, with a league-low 15.7% of their opponent’s plate appearances ending in strikeouts while nearly double the proportion of their at-bats have ended in hits.
Means, meanwhile, provided consistency and performance. Entering the start in which he suffered his injury, Means was one of seven American League pitchers to have thrown at least 70 innings, compiling a 2.05 ERA that was the sport’s sixth lowest. He led the AL in WHIP — walks plus hits per inning — at 0.80. The Orioles’ rotation’s WHIP in his absence has been 1.83.
Matt Harvey, signed to be a veteran stabilizer behind Means, has a 9.15 ERA in five starts since Means’ injury, completing the fifth in only once. Dean Kremer was in the minors when Means got hurt and took his place in the rotation, only to return to Triple-A after issuing five walks in joining Means as the only Orioles starters to last less than an inning. Bruce Zimmermann, the most effective of the Orioles’ collection of rookie starters, has since joined Means on the injured list with left bicep tendinitis.
Hyde said Saturday he plans to keep left-hander Keegan Akin in the rotation despite his 11.41 ERA in his past five starts because, simply, there aren’t many other options.
“We’re a little thin, and so we’re doing the best we can with our rotation right now,” Hyde said. “Hopefully, these guys can turn it around and start pitching a little deeper in the game to give our bullpen a little bit of a breather. A lot of these guys don’t have a ton of major league experience and they’re seeing what it’s like and need to make some adjustments, be able to go least two times through the order.”
Since Means’ early exit, no group of relievers has thrown more innings than Baltimore’s. Collectively, Orioles relievers have baseball’s second-worst relief ERA during that time with a mark more than a full run higher than their ERA entering this stretch.
Despite having not pitched for them in nearly a month while rehabbing his injury in Sarasota, Florida, Means is responsible for half of the Orioles’ six-inning starts — the only pitcher in baseball who can claim that status for his team — and all but one of their eight deeper starts, including his no-hitter of the Seattle Mariners a month before his injury.
Only López, who has often been effective early only to struggle in the middle innings, has managed to record an out in the seventh among Baltimore’s other starters. Including Means’ such outings, the Orioles’ 16 starts of at least six innings are the fewest in the league.
Given Means’ long-term importance to the Orioles’ rebuilding efforts, there’s no need to rush him and his health. But he also can’t come back soon enough.