Whether John Means’ next start at Camden Yards is with the Orioles or not will say much more about the organization than its star left-hander.
Deciding Means’ future will be the Orioles’ singular statement of intent this offseason as he enters salary arbitration due for a significant raise. But make no mistake: even though Means hasn’t reached the early-season heights that led to his no-hitter in Seattle, he’s growing into a peerless homegrown starter where the Orioles are concerned.
Perhaps the strongest evidence is the stamp of approval from Means’ harshest critic: himself.
“I’m happy with most of it, grinding my way through some rough parts, and also it clicked there for a while,” he said.
It’s true that it’s been a season of distinct sections for Means. His first eight starts were truly dominant, culminating in his May 5 no-hitter against the Mariners. He had a 1.21 ERA in his first eight starts of the season, and the only pitchers with eight-start stretches better than that this year reads mostly like a list of Cy Young Award candidates — Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Kevin Gausman, Rich Hill and Brandon Woodruff.
Means struggled some after that, with a 5.21 ERA in four starts before his shoulder injury landed him on the injured list for nearly two months. He wasn’t his best upon his return in late-July, but has been better of late. Despite a 4.33 ERA since his return, he has a 2.79 ERA and a 1.023 WHIP in September.
For him, it comes down to whether he’s had his change-up.
“It’s kind of been the tale of two change-ups for me, to be honest,” Means said after his start against the Rangers on Sunday. “I had the change-up the first half and did well, and then kind of lost the change-up. Once that pitch is on, and it was on today until it wasn’t, and I was all right. But that was really it — that’s really what happened this season.”
Still, that he feels like the way he’s been able to compete without his signature pitch is a testament to how far he’s come.
“The curveball has been a huge add for me,” Means said. “Today it wasn’t great, but still, it’s 10-times better than it was in ’19 when I had the change-up. I think that add has allowed me to grind through some outings when I haven’t had the change-up. I can locate my fastball with the curveball and I can get away with it. But if I’m going to have a good amount of strikeouts, I’m going to have that change-up to go along with it.”
Faint praise caveats and all, Means has still had one of the best seasons for an Orioles starter this century. Of the pitchers with at least 140 innings, only Erik Bedard in 2007 (3.16) and Wei-Yin Chen in 2014 (3.23) have a lower ERA than Means’ 3.32. While his high home run rates don’t make Means a darling of expected pitching statistics, his 1.002 WHIP is the lowest of any Orioles starter with at least 140 innings since 2000.
Just 11 of the 27 home runs he allowed came with runners on base, and Sunday’s 7-4 loss was yet another example of the Orioles’ lack of offense when he pitches. Entering the game, they’d scored 3.44 runs per game in his starts, among the worst for any pitcher in the majors. The Orioles’ only hit while he was in the game Sunday was a two-run home run by Anthony Santander.
The six-plus weeks the Orioles spent without Means in the rotation should be reason enough to appreciate him. The Orioles’ rotation ERA in that stretch of 35 games was 7.54, with both that and their 1.81 WHIP in that span the worst in the league. With him, both before and after the injury, their starter ERA is 5.57 entering Sunday, with a 1.427 WHIP.
A variety of factors can make it difficult to value what Means is doing in the first three years of his career in these losing circumstances. The Orioles don’t even win often when he pitches, but have an even worse chance of doing so when he’s not on the mound. He set the bar so high with his no-hitter and start to the season that even a spell in which he’s been essentially league-average doesn’t feel like anything special.
It is, though. Means would be a credit to any rotation he’s in, and the Orioles owe it to him and themselves to ensure they take advantage of that going forward.
What’s to come?
For the second straight series, the Orioles are rolling three rookie left-handers out against the Boston Red Sox as they finish the season with six straight games against a division rival trying to grind out a playoff spot.
Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells each bounced back from difficult starts in Boston last weekend to pitch well against the Texas Rangers, and will be challenged to do so again in Boston on what will likely be their final start of the season.
The most intriguing assignment of that season, though, goes to Bruce Zimmermann — who hasn’t pitched since June 13 because of arm and ankle injuries. He pitched well in his first four starts, had four outings that were a bit rougher and then consistently gave the Orioles five or six solid innings in his four starts before his injury. Two more starts for him at the major league level can go a long way to reinforcing what was clear from the beginning of spring training: of the Orioles’ graduating pitching prospects, he’s been the best so far.
What was good?
Cedric Mullins’ 30th home run and all the attendant fanfare was well-deserved, and Austin Hays’ continued success has been impressive to watch. But Kelvin Gutiérrez’s offensive week is worth noting as well.
Acquired from the Kansas City Royals for cash, Gutiérrez hit his first home run with the Orioles on Saturday night and hit .348 with a .945 OPS over seven games this week, his best in an Orioles uniform. There are some players who come to the Orioles off waivers who look like steals, the way Jorge Mateo did. Others, like Domingo Leyba earlier this summer, are clearly not. Gutiérrez’s strong play at third base and athleticism have him in the middle of those two categories, it seems.
“Guti has played really solid defensively for us since he’s been here,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Really hadn’t gotten a ball in the air until last night, where you saw that when he does, he’s got some power. I thought his at-bats, really the last week to two weeks have improved. He’s hitting more balls hard. He has hit a lot of balls on the ground, and you see him kind of get one, showing the power that he has in batting practice, you saw it last night.
“If he can tap into that a little bit more — the position he plays, too, you’d like to see some slug there — but the ability is there. He’s obviously really athletic. I know he works hard at it. Hopefully, he can continue to keep it going the last week.
The impact of a full season after just 60 games in 2020 has been evident all season, but the preponderance of injuries for the Orioles is sidelining players who could stand to take advantage of even another week or two of games.
Infielder Ramón Urías’ nagging groin injury that ended a productive season was one of them. So, too, was Keegan Akin’s core muscle injury and Chris Ellis’ sore arm, the latter of which hasn’t officially ended his season.
Add in rookie Tyler Wells’ shoulder soreness, and this week has been one of attrition for the Orioles. So many of their bright spots will be missing the rest of the way.
On the farm
Only Triple-A Norfolk is left playing after Double-A Bowie was swept in the championship series of Double-A Northeast, and it’s an opportunity for some players who could have fared better in 2021 to finish stronger than they’d played all year. One such player who could use a feel-good spell to go home with is former top prospect Yusniel Diaz.
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Diaz homered for just the third time in 179 at-bats at Norfolk this week on Saturday, then was back in the lineup to strike out four times in five at-bats Sunday. He’s batting .158 with a .559 OPS at Triple-A this season, a shocking output from a player who was the centerpiece of the Orioles’ 2018 trade of Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Diaz’s offseason will be an interesting one as the Orioles figure out what’s next on his developmental path after his career seems to have stalled out.