Seizing the Means of Production
The Baltimore Orioles are awful. Have you seen an Orioles game recently? (Of course, you haven’t.) The starting pitcher is likely to be a guy in his late-20s who you’ve never heard of before, with a fastball topping out at 91 and an ERA somewhere around the high 5s. The lineup is full of nobodies, rookies in misfitting positions, and Chris Davis — the king of bad contracts. Fans are showing up on “Aaron Brooks bobblehead night” so they can sell them on eBay to the fifteen dedicated Orioles fans left.
But among the hellfire that is the Baltimore Orioles organization, a tiny, tiny silver lining shined through during the 2019 season, and his name is John Means.
Means, an unsuspecting 26-year-old lefty, began the season fighting for a rotation spot, but found himself selected in the All-Star Game in July and among the finalists for the AL Rookie of the Year race. Through 155 innings, Means posted a 3.60 ERA, a 12–11 record (not bad for a team that lost 108 games!), and gained 2 MPH of velocity on his fastball, allowing him another decent pitch to pair with his changeup (his only plus-pitch at the time). Means was one of two pitchers (Dylan Bundy) to throw over 17 starts — a consistent anchor in the rotation where consistent innings are needed badly for the depleted Orioles. Just for an example of exactly how badly, the Orioles let Dan Straily (9.82 ERA) run out there 14 times. For Baltimore, a Means start meant the bullpen could take a breather — Means averaged more innings per start (5.4) than anybody on the Orioles’ roster by the season’s end.
For the Orioles fans that continue to tough out the recent disasters masked as a “rebuilding period”, Means was something worth watching. He was a decent, reliable starter when they expected less than nothing.
And I think the Orioles would be smart to trade him immediately.
Sure, Means is the headlining starter for one of the worst rotations in recent memory. Sure, trading Means will probably follow with backlash from fans and at least another year of watching Asher Wojciekowski yuck it up on the mound once a week. Sure, Means has five seasons of cheap team control on his contract. But the difference between normal rebuilding teams and the Orioles is that rebuilding teams usually have decent pieces worth trading for — the Orioles don’t, minus a small few (Villar, Mancini, Givens). A 108-loss team with an average farm in the midst of the toughest division in the Majors shouldn’t expect to be good for as long as Means is around. Capitalizing on a return for five years of Means would likely include a haul of prospects that could make the O’s very happy around, say, 2025 or so.
Plus, for as good as John Means is, the Orioles realistically shouldn’t expect him to be much better than he is. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good pitcher, but his older age for rookies, past history in the minors, and peripherals in the Majors don’t exactly imply that he’ll turn out as the next Kershaw. Means relies on getting soft contact rather than striking out hitters, which goes against the grain of modern pitching. While Means has successfully been able to do so (90th percentile in hard-hit %), it’s tough to say whether he’ll be much better at it than he is. Baseball Savant places his expected wOBA and SLG among the 60th and 43rd percentile, respectively, which suggests that he’s closer to being an average starter that got lucky than a sustainably-reliable starter who can continue to progress. His FIP and xFIP are 4.41 and 5.48, and, while I don’t necessarily think he will pitch to these numbers (FIP/xFIP tends to dislike contact pitchers), they seem to strengthen the idea that he may have been getting lucky.
With not much to look forward to for a while, the Baltimore Orioles are likely to face another awful year in 2020, and probably some more awful years heading forward. The Orioles should maximize on desperate measures by dealing John Means elsewhere this winter.