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Orioles reset: John Means has established that he’s a good major league starter and teased that he’s a great one

Throughout what’s now been parts of three seasons as a big league starting pitcher, Orioles left-hander John Means has established a pretty firm baseline of what to expect from his starts.

He’s going to throw strikes, try to mix his pitches, and get his team into the middle innings with a chance to win almost every time out there.

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What his last four starts of 2020 and the first five starts of this year have done, with Sunday’s cruise through a red-hot Oakland Athletics lineup included, is raise the question of just how good he can be.

He’s already the most valuable pitcher on the Orioles roster, in his prime at age 28 and with three years of club control remaining after this one. The pitcher he’s been for the totality of his time as a big league starter is an asset to have around. The one he’s been of late makes him truly worth keeping.

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Since the start of 2019, he’s been comfortably among the game’s best starters. Among those who entered Sunday with at least 220 innings since then, Means’ 3.56 ERA was 18th best out of the 56 pitchers who qualify under that criteria.

He had the 13th-lowest walk rate, but also the 13th-lowest strikeout rate, and despite a fly ball rate of 48.7 percent that ranked highest among that group, he allowed did well to keep the ball in the park with an 11.7 percent home run/fly ball rate.

That type of pitching was enough to make him an All-Star in 2019, and helped him anchor the rotation, but manager Brandon Hyde was steadfast that there’s another step for Means to take. He did at the end of 2020, and carried it into this April in a significant way.

After his tough talk with Hyde as Means’ 2020 was going off the rails, he got back on track Sept. 8 and has been at a different level. Means entered Sunday with the fourth-best ERA of any pitcher with at least 30 innings since then. He had a 0.78 WHIP that will have gone down after allowing five base runners in 6 1/3 innings Sunday.

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The list of pitchers atop the leaderboard since then are the game’s best, including Gerrit Cole, Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Trevor Bauer and Jacob deGrom.

Hyde sees a few reasons for that, including Means’ swinging strike rate going up and costly foul ball rate dropping.

“I do [see that] because of the breaking balls, because they can’t just look high-low anymore,” Hyde said. “We saw a bunch of dump-in curveballs today. Just to be a little bit more unpredictable in his pitch mix is going to create guys not being on time, and for me, that’s the difference in this year and the last couple of years.”

A rival scout who has watched Means develop noted that even at the big league level, he continues to improve.

“It’s not just the changeup,” said the scout, who is not authorized to speak on other teams’ players. “He’s able to sequence four pitches effectively while throwing a bunch of strikes.”

That’s Means at his best, and with a 1.50 ERA in five starts to begin the season, it’s reminiscent in some ways of the previous Orioles pitcher to start a season this well: Bundy in 2018.

Each has a standout secondary pitch—Means’ changeup and Bundy’s slider—and misses bats with well-located fastballs because of them. They can compete with just those two pitches, but each produced his best outings with everything working and hitters having little idea of what was coming. Means had that Sunday, and while the breaking balls have been fleeting, that’s how he’s been more often than not during this standout span.

Bundy was the Orioles’ top starter by default for some years, though never consistently performed at the level he did during spells when he was at his best. Means is finding such steadiness at this point in his career.

Hyde said: “The way he’s throwing the baseball right now, you feel good about your chances when John Means is on the mound because this is a guy that’s going to pound the strike zone and be really competitive and have multiple pitches to mix, facing playoff-type lineups and going into the seventh inning, he’s just doing a great job. …

“He’s just so early on in his career. It’s fun to watch. I don’t want to compare him to anybody specifically. I want him to be John Means. But I love the competitiveness in him. He’s a winner.”

What’s to come?

After playing nothing but division opponents in 2020, the Orioles likely enjoyed the variety of two-plus weeks and 12 straight games outside the American League East in facing the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Miami Marlins and Oakland Athletics.

That changes as the New York Yankees come to town for four games before a week out west in Oakland and Seattle begins.

The Oakland-Seattle trip in 2019 was quite a low point of the season, as the Orioles were in a bit of a pitching crisis in mid-June and were outscored 59-29 while going 1-7. They last won a series in Oakland in 2015, and Seattle in 2014.

What was good?

The Orioles bullpen used to be almost exclusively blamed for the team’s struggles, but that certainly can’t be said anymore. The deep and versatile group is among one of the league’s best relief corps, and the past week has shown that.

Over last week’s five games, starters pitched 21 2/3 innings. The Orioles asked the bullpen for 24 1/3 innings of relief, spread among 20 different outings, and just twice did any of those pitchers allow a run — Shawn Armstrong on Tuesday in Miami, and Tyler Wells Saturday against Oakland.

From César Valdez and lefties Paul Fry and Tanner Scott at the back end to improving middle relief righties Adam Plutko, Dillon Tate, Travis Lakins Sr. and Cole Sulser, the bullpen is making it seem like Hyde is pulling all the right strings of late.

Left-hander Zac Lowther’s shutout inning to end Sunday’s game was a nice cap to a big week out of the bullpen.

What wasn’t?

Nearly a month into the 2019 season, Cedric Mullins had played 22 games and was batting .094 with a .337 OPS and -0.7 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs. And after a tough weekend against the Minnesota Twins 23 games into the Orioles’ season, he was sent down on April 22 to the minors to figure it out there.

Ryan Mountcastle’s start to 2021 might be trending that way. With an 0-for-4 Sunday, albeit with a walk, Mountcastle is batting .167 with a .472 OPS.

The Orioles don’t have a completely like-for-like replacement, though it’s not as if they need one—they could just go with Austin Hays, Mullins and DJ Stewart as everyday outfielders for a while. When Mullins was sent down in 2019, Stevie Wilkerson took his spot on the roster and eventually played center field, so an obvious replacement isn’t necessary when a player gets into a rut like this.

On the farm

It’s only a couple of games each week against their alternate site peers with the Washington Nationals, but this month has brought minor league statistics in some form, and a few Orioles prospects in particular have stood out.

Second baseman Jahmai Jones, who was acquired before spring training from the Los Angeles Angels for pitcher Alex Cobb, had a hit in Friday’s game to improve his batting line to 8-for-13 with a pair of doubles and a pair of home runs in four games.

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Wilkerson, Rylan Bannon, Richie Martin and Austin Wynns have also been productive at the plate against the Nationals’ depth arms this month. Most of these players will go to Triple-A Norfolk when that season starts.

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