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John Means is restoring hope with strong second-half performance

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The lefty appeared destined for the familiar sophomore slump, but with a string of strong outings, he’s showing he might still be the pitcher the Orioles thought they’d be getting.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Early on, it looked like the sudden hype may have been a little too much, too soon for John Means.

After finishing runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year award last season, Means was being looked at by Orioles fans to be the team’s ace this season.

And then he stumbled out of the gate. He missed his opening start. And when he did make his debut, he pitched poorly. And then he kept pitching poorly. By the time August was turning into September, Means stood at 0-2 with an 8.59 ERA in five appearances, and it seemed the classic sophomore slump was in full effect.

Well, here we are in late September, and while the Orioles’ playoff chances have vanished and the regular season is dwindling down to its final games, a positive theme has popped up.

That sophomore slump for Means? Hold that thought.

And the thought that it may have been too good to be true with him? Hold that thought too.

Means has spent September showing that he might still be that top-of-the-rotation starter the Orioles hoped they had stumbled into after he went 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA in 2019. For the month, Means is 2-1 with a 2.74 ERA in four starts, but the page has really turned in his last three starts. He allowed one run in six innings against the Mets on Sept. 8, did the same thing against the Yankees on Sept. 13, and allowed one run in 5.2 innings while striking out 12 against the division-leading Rays on Sept. 20.

This is what Means was doing last year. This is better than what he was doing last year. And it’s resubmitted the question from the start of the season — what exactly do the Orioles have in the 27-year-old? — that we figured we had unfortunately seen answered by that string of rough outings to start the season.

The Orioles weren’t sure what they had going into 2020. And they don’t know going into 2021, either.

Seeing Means finish strong, however, is encouraging. Two of those last three outings, against the Mets and Yankees, came in rematches, which you’d think would doom a weaker pitcher the way a second or third time through the lineup does in a game.

Instead, it’s been the opposite. Means gave up five runs, all earned, in 2.1 innings against the Yankees the first time he saw them. In the second time — granted, facing a lineup without Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton or Gio Urshela, which makes a slight difference — he cruised in a 3-1 Orioles loss.

In the first game against the Mets on Sept. 2, Means allowed four runs on eight hits in 5.1 innings. In the second game on Sept. 8, facing pretty much the same lineup that hammered him less than a week before, he allowed only three hits in the six innings of one-run ball.

That’s good to see for a variety of reasons, one being that it shows Means gaining a feel for a different pitching repertoire. Means came into this season with more velocity, and has seen his fastball (according to MLB.com’s Baseball Savant) tick up from 91.7 to 93.8 mph, and his changeup go from 80.9 to 84.8. This created hope that he was rounding into more of a power pitcher after striking out only 7.0 batters per nine (121 in 155 innings), but the new approach wasn’t helping him attack hitters early on.

Now, however, the results are starting to pick up. Means is hardly Randy Johnson out there, but he’s striking out an extra batter per nine, and his whiff percentage on his fastball is up from 18.2 to 29.1 percent. That’s correlated with a drop in opponents’ batting average off of his fastball from .270 to .186, which also bodes well going forward.

There’s often a flip side to the coin, however, and there is in this case too as the improved fastball has seemingly come at the expense of his out pitch from a season ago. Means’s changeup was nasty in 2019, with a good amount of movement to go with the change in velocity, and hitters had a hard time picking it up.

That hasn’t been the case to this point in 2020; batters have gone from hitting .207 against it to hitting .286, and Means’s put away percentage (the rate at which a pitch, thrown with two strikes, strikes out the batter) has fallen from 15.9 percent to 7.1. Simply put, the changeup got swings and misses last year. It hasn’t this season.

That appears to be the mission for Means in 2021: Combining the fastball of 2020 with the changeup from 2019. When a pitcher is out there with a string of bad starts to his name and a high ERA, it’s easy to wonder if the day will ever come when that mission is accomplished.

Given Means’s recent starts, however, it seems he’s getting there. He’s certainly found a way to make it work of late. For Orioles fans, still eager to see what exactly he can become, that’s welcome news.