“It’s not how you start the race; it’s how you cross the finish line that matters.” If this is you, then Orioles starter John Means had a great 2020: a 2.48 ERA in his last five starts with 31 strikeouts and just 4 walks in 29 innings.
If, on the hand, “consistency is the name of the game” . . . well. What to say about an 0-2 record and 8.59 ERA in Means’s first five games? It was a disastrous start for the lefty, and not just because the world has been on fire this year. He began the season with a bout of “dead arm” in July, lost his father to pancreatic cancer in August, and didn’t “get back to pitching like himself” until half the season was over. It made for one pronounced sophomore slump … or did it?
As a rookie last season, Means did the same “tale of two halves” thing, only flipped. He busted out of the gates with a stellar 2.94 ERA in his All-Star first half, but struggled to a 4.62 average in the second. Means’s second-half woes had less to do with his not throwing strikes so much as the fact he allowed a bunch of hits: 8.82 per nine innings in the second half to go with a .249 batting average against (compared to 7.56 H/9 and a .224 average in the first half). After one particularly rough outing in August 2019, Means admitted to “certain mechanical issues” that manager Brandon Hyde spotted, as well: loss of command of the fastball and a breaking ball that wasn’t sharp, leaving Means behind in the count and missing up in the strike zone often. In short, mechanical issues led to batters teeing Means up.
Flash forward to 2020. As CC’s Drew Bonifant has pointed out, Means was a different pitcher in some fundamental ways. On all four of his pitches, his velocity jumped in a way you don’t commonly see year-to-year. Most notably, his fastball velocity ticked up from 91.7 mph in 2019 to 93.8 mph in 2020, and his changeup went from 80.9 mph to 84.9 mph.
Means’ spin rate, meanwhile, continued its upward trend since 2018, after the new regime got their hands on him. Means’ fastball spin rate is now in the 88th percentile of MLB.
When it came to pitch mix, Means got more fastball-forward, reduced his use of the changeup and slider a bit, and mixed in a curveball with greater frequency.
In other ways, things stayed the same as in 2019: when John Means is bad, he is bad in a particular way. The bad Means continues to allow too many hits (albeit not many walks). Through August 28th, Means was averaging a very-bad 10.1 hits per game, with opponents hitting .271 off of him. In the second half, however, Means cut his hits to an excellent 6.2 per game and batters’ average against him dropped to .190. (Meanwhile, his walks per game went from a totally-decent 1.9 during the worst of it to a superlative 1.2.)
If you watch a bunch of Johns Means footage from 2020 (a fun thing to do, whatever you’re up to these days), you’ll see what Brandon Hyde saw last season: in the bad, early starts, command issues led to flat breaking balls or fastballs missing the glove and leaking into batters’ sweet spot. That’s just what happened when Means was taken deep during losses to the Yankees on July 30th and to the Marlins on August 4th. On the other hand, when Means dots the fastball around the strike zone—down around the knees or at the top of the box—he’s lethal. Compare his last start of the season, where he fanned nine Blue Jays and allowed one run in six innings. Fastball command: it’s no mystery, but it’s hard to do.
Speaking of strikeouts, a worry early in the 2020 season, when Means’s K/9 rate fell to a subpar 6.97, a lot of the problem seemed related to a changeup that had gotten “faster and worse,” as Drew Bonifant pointed out. It’s true: an extra 4 mph of velocity seems to have made the Means changeup easier to hit: batters went from a .207 average against it in 2019 to .275 in 2020, and Means used it far less as a putaway pitch this season: 16% of the time last year, compared with 6.7% now.
Means more than made up for it, though, with more curveballs and sliders, and a much better fastball. Overall, if his attack was slightly less balanced than last season, it was also much more effective: the 9.6 strikeouts he averaged per game in the second half of the season were a career best. Hitters batted .188 against Means’s curveball, which he threw 6% more often than last season, and his improved fastball drew a whiff percentage of 28.9% rate (up from 18.2%) and an opponent batting average of just .155, 38th-best in MLB. Means’ 12-strikeout masterclass against the AL Champion Rays on September 20th was a case in point: lots of fastballs around the corners, a couple of big hooks, and a backdoor slider now and then.
So what explained the difference in the two halves of John Means’s 2020? Rust was undoubtedly a big factor. This was true for many pitchers who had to interrupt and restart their offseason training routines, a factor which may have led to the leaguewide spell of throwing injuries this year. It’s especially a concern for a pitcher like Means whose stuff, as the above data shows, is still a work-in-progress. I mean this in a good way: as good as the rookie Means was, he still hadn’t found his ceiling, stuff-wise. Honing his fastball command, refining his pitch mix, and recovering his changeup of 2019 will be Means’ task in 2021. If he can do these three things, he’ll be a serious force for the Orioles next year.