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The Orioles' pitching staff has gotten off to a rough start to the 2019 season. As a team, Baltimore ranks last in the big leagues in ERA, opponent OPS and home runs (on pace to allow 350, which would shatter the major-league record of 258).
However, one unlikely arm has emerged as a glimmer of hope in the starting rotation.
Left-hander John Means, 26, turned in another solid outing against Boston May 6. For the first time in his big-league career, he pitched more than five innings, throwing seven innings of one-run ball against the defending World Series champions. He gave up just three hits, struck out four and the Orioles cruised to a 4-1 victory.
Means (4-3, 2.48 ERA) received very little fanfare as a prospect in the Orioles' system. Last year at Triple-A Norfolk, he went 6-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 20 games; however, he was old for a prospect (25 years) and didn't put up the strikeout numbers that teams often look for in young pitchers in the minors.
The Orioles, however, have given the lefty an opportunity to stick in the rotation this year, and one former Orioles' southpaw has been impressed.
"He's learning how to pitch," said Ross Grimsley, host of
The Ross Grimsley Show, May 7. "He's got a swing-and-miss pitch in the changeup. He's got a lot of arm speed, he's able to make it move at times. I don't know if he does it on purpose, but still, the arm speed makes it look like a fastball."
Means' changeup has emerged as his top weapon so far this season. Per Brooks Baseball, its average velocity
sits about 12 miles an hour slower than his fastball. That difference, Grimsley says, keeps hitters off balance and forces them to guess between the fastball and changeup with less certainty.
According to Fangraphs, Means' runs above average on his changeup (wCH) currently sits at 5.2. To put that into better context, it'd rank seventh in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify. In simpler terms, it's helped Means find his footing in the big-league rotation.
"The whole deal with the changeup is, 'How do I take speed off of it and make it look like a fastball?'" Grimsley said. "There are a lot of different ways to do it, and obviously he found the way and had enough confidence to use it."
Means began the season in the Orioles' bullpen, throwing 3.1 innings of one-run ball against the New York Yankees March 31. He picked up the win that day -- the first of his major league career -- and would soon earn his first big-league start against the Oakland Athletics April 9.
Aside from a two-inning appearance in Tampa Bay April 18, Means has stuck in the rotation, helping fill the holes created by injuries to right-handers Alex Cobb and Nate Karns. After pitching exactly five innings in three consecutive starts, Means broke through against Boston.
"I saw [Means] sitting on the bench for the sixth inning, and I'm going, 'Is he going back out?'" Grimsley said. "And he did! And I'm going, 'All right!'"
It was a rare occurrence for an Orioles starter; Means was just the third pitcher to complete seven innings in a game this season, joining right-handers Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy. It took Means just 96 pitches to get through those seven innings, during which he kept Red Sox hitters guessing -- often incorrectly.
"[Means] was facing J.D. Martinez, a really good hitter on a torrid pace," Grimsley said. "He's looking for the changeup knowing that's [Means'] main pitch. And he got fastballs. Then the next time up he was looking for fastballs and he got changeups."
Grimsley also noticed that Means seems to be able to throw different types of changeups based on his grip.
"It's like having a four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball," he said. "You get two fastballs, and now you have a four-seam changeup and a two-seam changeup -- you've got four pitches with two.
"He's got such a good changeup, and if he can manipulate where his hand is on the ball, he will get more movement with it," he added.
Time will tell if Means is able to remain in the Orioles' rotation throughout the season, but given that Cashner (4-1, 4.25 ERA) is the only other active starter with an ERA under 5.00, it would seem that he currently has the inside track. Means' next start will likely come against the Los Angeles Angels.
To hear more from Grimsley, listen to the full show here: