With the MLB Postseason looming, the Orioles have to make decisions that they have not needed to make since 2014 when they won the division and played in the ALCS. The decision, of course, is who should be in the pitching rotation during the Postseason. The Orioles clinched a playoff spot more than a week ago and, as of me writing this, their magic number to clinch the division and skip the Wild Card round altogether is two with five games remaining.
If the Orioles win the division, it means that they can set their rotation fully how they want to enter the ALDS and they get nearly a week off while the Rays would have to win two games just to get the chance to compete in the Division Series. The stakes for this week's series against the Nationals and Red Sox are high, but it is also one last chance for the O's to learn who they can rely on in October.
As far as the playoff rotation is concerned, most teams carry a three-man rotation with a fourth starter available when needed, but that often does not come into play until the Championship Series and World Series. It is safe to assume that Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez have earned a spot in the rotation after dominating the final few months of the season, which brings us to the third rotation spot.
After the trade deadline, it seemed likely that either Jack Flaherty or Kyle Gibson would earn Postseason starts but both veterans have struggled down the stretch and Flaherty has already been pushed to the bullpen. Another potential option, Cole Irvin, has since been demoted and would only be on the Postseason roster to provide another lefty option out of the bullpen.
This brings us to two starters competing for the third rotation spot: Dean Kremer and John Means. Kremer has been a consistent member of the Orioles rotation the past two seasons and has seen success after a horrendous 2021 season. Means, on the other hand, was the ace of the rotation during the first three years of the Mike Elias/Brandon Hyde regime and was the only competent starter in the rotation for a large portion of that time.
Has John Means done enough to solidify a rotation spot in the playoffs?
Of course, Means was more than competent. In 2019, he was the Orioles' lone All-Star representative and finished the season second in Rookie of the Year voting to Yordan Alvarez and finishing ahead of Brandon Lowe after a 3.60 ERA and 131 ERA+.
2021 was an arguably even more successful season for Means after he finished with a 3.62 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 123 ERA+. The most notable achievement of that season was the no-hitter he pitched against the Seattle Mariners that May where the only baserunner reached on a dropped third strike from Pedro Severino.
The biggest issue for Means has been his health. Since the start of the 2022 season, he has made only four starts due to undergoing Tommy John Surgery that April. Since his return, he has made three starts and shined in his most recent, a 7.1 inning affair in Cleveland where he allowed only one hit and led the Orioles to a much-needed 2-1 win.
In those three starts, he has a 2.60 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in 17.1 innings pitched. His final start of the regular season will likely come Friday night against the Red Sox, and that could go a long way in determining whether or not he is trustworthy.
Kremer has been a workhorse for the O's this season with a 4.25 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 167.2 innings pitched. He has essentially been a league average starter with a 97 ERA+ and 4.63 FIP which would place him solidly in the back end of any rotation. Unfortunately for Dean, he has run into some recent struggles.
In his most recent start in Cleveland, he allowed six runs in 3.1 innings in an eventual 9-8 win for the Guardians. He has only made it through five innings in one of his previous four starts which is worrying for a team who has relied on their starters to eat innings whenever they can to save the bullpen.
Fatigue seems to be a major concern as his career-high in innings at any professional level before this season was 131.1 in 2018 when he split time between the Dodgers and Orioles system. He has already surpassed that mark by 36 innings, and it is fair to wonder whether or not he should be trusted in crucial October games given this fatigue.
As pitchers, Kremer and Means are similar in that neither are prone to allowing the three true outcomes of walks, strikeouts, and home runs. This means that their peripherals are often worse than their true stats and sites like Fangraphs or Baseball Reference are never too high on either.
Relatively speaking, home runs have been an issue for Kremer this season. After allowing only eleven home runs in 125 innings last year, that number has grown to 27 this season. The home run per nine innings rate has grown from 0.77 in 2022 to 1.45 in 2023, nearly doubling. At the same time, his strikeout rate has also increased from 6.2 per nine innings to 8.0. Keeping the ball in the ballpark is absolutely vital for October success.
For Means, he relies heavily on soft contact that stems from his pitch repertoire. In his last full season, Means struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings while walking only 2.25. His FIP is always much higher than his ERA.
In 2021, his FIP was 4.62 despite a 3.62 ERA. This year, his FIP is 5.68 compared to a 2.60 ERA and only six total strikeouts. A regression to the means during the Postseason would be a worst-case scenario for the Orioles, and there are still a lot of question marks surrounding Means.
As mentioned earlier, he will get one more start before the regular season ends and his effectiveness in that start will be a big indicator as to whether or not the O's can trust him. The good news for Means is that his changeup is as effective as ever and he has induced softer contact than average in his three starts this year.
In those starts, the average exit velocity for hitters in 85.4 miles per hour which is well below league average. His hard hit percentage is also 32.7 percent which is lower than his season totals in 2020 and 2021 when he was extremely effective. His ability to pound the zone is also promising since command was another big strength of his from 2019 to 2021.
Ultimately, both Dean Kremer and John Means will make one more regular season start and each start will be a big indicator as to who is more trustworthy in the Postseason. For Kremer, fatigue and propensity to give up the long ball are issues that concern the O's but his effectiveness and consistency over the past two seasons work in his favor.
For Means, a lack of a track record over the past two seasons because of injury is the biggest cause for concern while his lack of strikeouts and a minor dip in velocity also cause some worries. In their peak forms, Means is clearly a better option than Kremer, but neither of them are at their peak, so the question boils down to who will pitch better in crucial situations this October.