The question seemed to stump Trey Mancini, to the point that he had to ask it of himself and, in time, a teammate.
“Biggest thing I’ve learned this year?” he said. “It’s not really anything I’ve thought about too much.”
But Mancini, the effective face of the Orioles’ present, was willing to think then, even if it meant silence as he considered an answer. About a minute went by, with Mancini offering “I’m trying to think of how to word it” and “pretty deep question," before he turned to Dwight Smith Jr. and, basically, asked for help.
“Biggest thing you’ve learned?” Smith repeated. “How to hit 30 homers.”
That prompted a laugh, but not quite the response Mancini was after. But after nearly a minute and a half of consideration, Mancini had an answer.
“I’d probably just say how eliminating mistakes, whether it be base running, in the field, just little things like that go a really long way,” he said, in part. “I think we’ve lost a pretty decent amount of games just because we have made just a couple more mental mistakes than other teams, honestly.”
Although Mancini’s response encompassed the 100-loss Orioles as a whole, it neatly describes how he has turned himself into the club’s most productive player: by clearing the mental roadblocks that physically held him back in his earlier seasons.
But there, he also learned to better understand his body and build muscle memory that has allowed him to better trust himself throughout a major league season in which he took a 3.47 ERA into Monday’s start against the Detroit Tigers, a number that ranks seventh in the American League and first among the circuit’s rookies.
“I’ve gotten into a certain routine every day,” Means said. “I kind of know what helps me pitch well, and I know when I’m not pitching well what I’m struggling with. It’s just kind of knowing your body, knowing your motion, so I know how to lock myself into position every day."
That daily routine includes getting in a tub then on a bike to warm up. He then begins weighted-ball drills he learned at P3, using both hands to repeatedly slam a 4-pound ball into the ground, as well as “99s,” where Means will throw a 2-pound ball into a wall and twist his upper body to catch it behind his back.
“There’s certain drills that I do to get my body to go into the right position and get used to it and create that muscle memory before I go out there,” Means said. “When I’m out there and throwing, I’m not even thinking about it because I’ve already locked myself into position.”
As much thought as Mancini put into the initial question, he agreed that not thinking, or at least thinking about only the right things, is how he found success.
In his third full year in the majors, Mancini leads the Orioles in weighted runs created plus, a metric that encompasses a player’s offensive performance, while posting a batting line of .278/.350/.517 with a career-high 32 home runs, 17 of them either tying a game or giving Baltimore the lead.
It’s a stark difference from how he started last season, entering the All-Star break with a .216 average, .655 OPS and the thought that a demotion could be coming.
In the past, Mancini has spent ample time watching video of opposing pitchers. Too often, he would “just kind of sit there and look at the screen and not really absorb a lot of information," but when he studied his own mechanics, especially during 2018′s first half, he found himself overthinking.
“I would almost go down a rabbit hole sometimes of trying to look at my swing from when I was in Double-A in 2015, like, ‘Oh, how do I get back to this?’ ” Mancini said. “And then I was in the box during the game thinking about where my hands are, my timing and all that stuff. Next thing I know, the ball’s flying by me, and I’m not even close to making contact.
“It’s been more between the ears, and it pretty much all starts in your head.”
For that reason, Mancini has minimized his time in front of those screens, trusting himself and his offseason work. He knows he still has areas to improve and practices with a short bat to better stay through the ball and avoid rolling over. He also wants to reduce his pre-swing head movement, which he said tends to be a cause of him hitting a groundball to the left side instead of driving the ball the other way. He has lowered his groundball rate by 7% from last season and hopes for another decrease in 2020.
Means, too, seeks improvement, especially after some mechanical issues caused him to have an 8.34 ERA in his first five starts of the second half before posting a 2.53 mark over his next five.
“I really only dipped my toe into what I was getting into last year,” he said. “I didn’t really fully commit the whole offseason to it. I think now, going into this offseason knowing what I know after this year and seeing the results that I’ve had, I know how to get better, I know where I lack still. I’m not blind. I’m not just going into the offseason just trying to do the same thing and repeat. I’m trying to get better at what I’m bad at.”
He’ll also get married in November. Is there any routine to that?
“I don’t know if I can create that routine when I get to that day,” Means said. “I think I’ll just kind of wing it and see what happens.”
What’s to come?
After the Orioles wrap up their series in Detroit, they’ll play their final homestand trying to avoid the franchise’s worst home record since it moved to Baltimore.
They would need to sweep both the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners to avoid tying or surpassing last year’s Orioles at 28-53. They’re 7-6 against Toronto, with one series at each venue remaining. Seattle took three of four from the Orioles in June and will be the final visitor for a long season at Camden Yards.
What was good?
Miguel Castro has lowered his ERA by nearly two points in the past three months. Since being scored upon for a third straight outing June 15, he’s made 32 appearances with a 2.10 ERA in 34 1/3 innings, allowing only two home runs and a .183 batting average. He continued that run with three scoreless outings this week.
Castro has been used about two-thirds as often against left-handed batters in his previous 32 than in his first 30, but he’s also been more effective against them; they hit .296 off Castro to open the year, but only .162 since mid-June.
In a season of evaluation for the Orioles, no position player has improved his standing more than Anthony Santander. It’s unlikely the hitless streak he suffered through this week will do anything to change that, though it was bad nonetheless. After an RBI single in the first inning of the Orioles’ Sunday finale with the Texas Rangers extended his hitting streak to 12 games, Santander started an 0-for-27 stretch that lasted until a two-run single in Sunday’s eighth inning.
“He was just trying to do way too much," Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. "A young player that got into a little bit of a funk that he just looks anxious to me.”
On the farm
2016 first-round draft pick Cody Sedlock pitched Double-A Bowie to its only victory in the Eastern League Championship Series against New York Yankees affiliate Trenton. Sedlock’s five shutout innings against the Thunder gave him an even 100 frames for the season, surpassing the career high of 90 he set in his first full professional season in 2017. After a 2018 campaign mostly lost to injuries, Sedlock, 24, had a 2.70 ERA between Bowie and High-A Frederick.