Thursday, May 2, 2019

Orioles Victory Card 11 : A tale of two prospects

Orioles Victory Number 11: 5-4 over the Chicago White Sox

2019 Topps Dylan Bundy

Baseball is a funny game and projecting success or failure of prospects is more or less a shot in the dark. Of all of the professional sports picking which player will succeed and which will be selling cars three years after they're drafted baseball has to be the toughest. It's also the longest journey for prospects. Kids drafted this summer may not make an impact for three or four years.  And that's for the ones drafted in the top two or three rounds.

Even if those prospects make it to the majors, year-in and year-out success can be tough to maintain. Just because someone was a first round pick doesn't mean he is going to win 20 games. Vice versa, just because a player is drafted in the 46th round doesn't mean he is going to be a career journeyman. Sometimes that 46th round pick can be leading a team in victories while the first round pick is just searching for a start where he doesn't give up a home run.

In 2011, the Baltimore Orioles made Dylan Bundy their first round pick and the fourth person chosen in the major league draft. He was the fourth pitcher taken following Gerrit Cole (Pirates), Danny Hultzen (Mariners), and Trevor Bauer (Diamondbacks). It took them all summer to sign the strapping righthanded high-school pitcher from Oklahoma, but with his skill set (two breaking balls and a bat-breaking 98 MPH fastball) the consensus was that he wouldn't be long in the minors.

That same year, way down in the 46th round - a round where favors are cashed in and family friends are drafted, the Atlanta Braves selected John Means, another high school hurler from fly-over country. According to Means, he was surprised at being drafted and was injured at the time the scout came out to visit him in Kansas City.  The scout actually advised against him signing at the time and so Means went to college. After a year at a nearby community college, Means ended up at West Virginia and then, after his junior season, was drafted in the 11th round by the Orioles in 2014.

By 2014, Bundy had already made his major league debut, a 2-appearance, 2-inning cup of coffee in 2012, been subject to a pitch count controversy, and was recovering from Tommy John surgery. He was also in the middle of a 5-year $6+ million contact. He was also a leading figure in the next wave of great Orioles pitchers that would return the organization to their former glory.

After sailing through the minors in his first year in professional baseball (from Delmarva to the majors in just one summer) the pain in his elbow kept him on the shelf for over a year. Recovery and rehab consumed all of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. He lasted just nine semi-productive appearances in Fredrick and Aberdeen before shoulder pain shut him down for the rest of the summer.

Means shared roster time with Bundy on that 2014 Aberdeen IronBirds. Following a brief stay in rookie ball, the left-hander made nine starts in Aberdeen and pitched fairly well, striking out 33 and walking only 2. He would spend the next four years working his way up through the system, never once making a top-prospects list for the Orioles, but also never getting to the point where he was in danger of being released. He gave up hits, but walked few and kept the ball in the park.

In 119 minor league starts from 2014-2018 Means had a pedestrian Win/Loss record (35 and 41) and an uninspiring 1.323 WHIP. There were some positives, he only walked 2 per game and gave up .8 home runs per game - a dreadfully important stat for pitching in the bandbox that is Camden Yards. With the Orioles in complete burn down mode, he earned a late-season call-up to the majors. He appeared in the first game of a double header against the Red Sox and gave up five runs on six hits in a 19-3 blowout. He didn't walk anyone but did give up a 3-run homer to J.D. Martinez.

Bundy had pitched in the game prior to Means' debut and lasted about as long (3 innings) and also surrendered a home run, a 2-run shot by Mookie Betts. He was saddled with the loss, his 16th of the season. The home run was the 39th out of 41 that he would give up during a trying season.

He was no longer the upper-90s power pitcher that had debuted with such promise six years earlier. That electric fastball, when left in the middle of the plate, was knocked around by hitters in ballparks all across the American League.  Bundy is still the de facto ace on the Orioles, now more by attrition than by sheer talent.

There are moments when he can look untouchable. He spots the fastball and then mixes in a sharp breaking slider that has hitters looking foolish. It's still there, that spark of a dominating pitcher, but all too often he labors around the strike zone. He fails to hit the corners and falls behind in counts. Then he is forced to come over the heart of the plate, and there it is extremely vulnerable. Despite several years in the majors he is still learning to pitch within his current talents. He now has to be more Greg Maddux than Roger Clemens.

Meanwhile, John Means has succeeded by being John Means. Mix speeds and pitches (according to FanGraphs he uses his change-up about 33% of the time and his fastball about 54% of the time with an 11 MPH difference between the two). He works fast and doesn't give up home runs. Well, at least until his last start when the White Sox tagged him for two bombs and jumped his hard hit percentage from 16% to 20%.

All of Means stats come with the usual small sample size warning. As he pitches more, the hitters will develop a "book" on him. His tendencies will become known and it's on him to figure out the next step, how to get major league hitters out when they know what you're throwing.

The summer is long, especially if you have any investment in the Orioles, and John Means may never win another game in the majors. Bundy could figure it out and become a dominant, soft-tossing ace.

For the record, John Means currently has zero officially licensed baseball cards. There are some minor league cards floating around, but he has yet to have one issued by Topps or even by Panini. On the other hand, according to the Trading Card Database, Bundy has 1,064. That will most likely change over the summer as Means will pop up Topps Update series and a handful of other releases.

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