Once the Orioles finally shifted their attention to the future last season, the list of major league debuts was long. So many familiar names from the top prospect lists. So much future star power. Seemingly a debut a day.
And yet it's the last of them, and in the eyes of many back then the least of them, who is making the biggest mark on this young Orioles season so far. John Means appears here to stay.
The rookie left-hander continued his revelatory start to 2019 with five innings of one-run ball, striking out a career-high six on his 26th birthday, as the Orioles held on tight for a 4-3 win against the Chicago White Sox before an announced 10,550 on Wednesday night at Camden Yards. Means picked up his third win of the season, and first as a starter, and continue to be as reliable a pitcher as manager Brandon Hyde has at his disposal.
“John is just starting his major league career, and is off to an unbelievable start,” Hyde said.
“It's been a whirlwind,” Means said. “I'm kind of still numb to it. I didn't think I'd be here. I didn't think I'd be on this team, and to be here and be providing and be doing well, it's really nice.”
Since making the Orioles roster out of spring training as a rather unlikely member of the Opening Day pitching staff, he has earned a win in long relief in the third game of the season, received a pair of starts after Alex Cobb went back on the injured list and reverted to a bullpen role before making Wednesday's spot start.
Means’ start was required because both Dan Straily and Cobb pitched in Saturday's doubleheader. With any more outings like this, it will be hard for Hyde to keep him out of the rotation permanently.
“We're going to figure some things out here as we go forward, but obviously John Means has earned a lot of things,” Hyde said. “I like giving John the ball. It's going to work itself out. There's still a lot of season left to go, five-plus months to go. John's going to make a lot of starts for us this year. We're going to figure some things out on how we're going to kind of navigate through going forward.”
Wednesday's win started tenuously for Means, who needed 25 pitches and worked around two well-hit singles to keep the White Sox off the board in the first inning. Hyde noted the quality of at-bats the White Sox took against him early, and how Means didn’t let it get him off course. He got better as things went on, however, and started picking up swinging strikes on the pitch that has given him the look of a bonafide major leaguer this month: his much-improved changeup.
Means spent his entire minor league career as a fastball-slider pitcher, though he came into spring training with much better fastball velocity, averaging 92 mph after topping out at 91 mph most of last season. He honed his body and his changeup at P3 Premier Pitching & Performance near St. Louis — three hours away from his home in the Kansas City area — and worked with minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt to try and bring along the pitch further in spring training.
The result is clear: Means isn't unhittable, but he sure is hard to get a bat on. Of his six strikeouts, all were swinging, and five came on the changeup. His 92 pitches gave him an even 400 on the season. He's gotten swinging strikes on 61 of those, for a 15.25% swinging strike rate. Among pitchers with at least 20 innings, that's fifth-best in the majors, with stars such as Blake Snell, Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole above him and Jacob deGrom below him.
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It's mostly thanks to the changeup, which has him completing his first full month in the majors with a 1.74 ERA in 20 2/3 innings and 23 strikeouts against six walks.
“It's saving me lately,” Means said. “I don't really have my breaking stuff as good as I'd like, and there's a lot to improve on. But I'm happy with how it worked tonight.”
Chicago's only run against him came on a four-pitch sequence when he threw two curveballs to Tim Anderson, who singled, and then two fastballs to José Abreu, who doubled to score Anderson.
Means worked around a two-out walk in the fifth inning to leave with a 4-1 lead, thanks to run-scoring hits by Renato Núñez and Rio Ruiz in the first inning, a sacrifice fly by Hanser Alberto in the second and Stevie Wilkerson's first career home run in the fourth.
Evan Phillips allowed a run in the sixth, but he, Paul Fry and Mychal Givens held the White Sox down to make it two straight wins for the Orioles after Givens allowed a run and left the tying run on third base in the ninth. It ends their homestand on a positive note before they reprise this week's opponents and face the Minnesota Twins and the White Sox on the road. The Orioles had won just one of 11 home games this season before back-to-back wins at Camden Yards to take two of three from the White Sox.
Davis not available
First baseman Chris Davis, who hit his second home run of the season Tuesday, was out of the lineup and not with the team, Hyde said.
“He had to miss today,” Hyde said. “He had a personal matter. We had a two-man bench, and we made it through. … He’s going to meet us in Minnesota. Everything’s good on that front.”