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John Means had his ups and downs as the de facto ace for the Orioles

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A terrific start, frustrating middle and encouraging end summed up the left-hander’s injury-affected season.

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

How good was John Means this season? Well, it depends on what part of the season you’re referring to.

If you’re referring to the start of the season, Means was spectacular. Cy Young caliber. A true ace, and one of the best pitchers in the American League.

If you’re referring to the middle, Means was a flash in the pan. Smoke and mirrors. Someone who got hot, couldn’t keep it going, and was a suspect for being someone greatly helped by the eventually banned adhesive substances that had baseball all abuzz.

And if you’re talking about the end, he fell somewhere in between.

It all added up to a 6-9 record but a 3.62 ERA, by far and away the best season put forward by an Orioles starting pitcher in 2021. The path to those numbers, however, was hardly smooth and not at all straight.

Means came into 2021 expected to be the top pitcher and one of the few reliable options in a weak Baltimore rotation and staff. He went 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA in 2019 as a rookie, and dipped to 2-4 and 4.53 in 2020, but when your fellow mates in the rotation include names like Matt Harvey, Bruce Zimmermann and Jorge Lopez...well, you’re the ace, buddy.

And through 52 games, Means looked not just like the Baltimore version of an ace, but like a true top of the line, give-him-the-ball-and-don’t-worry-about-it stud. The Orioles were 17-35 but Means himself was 4-1, and the owner of a sparkling 2.05 ERA and 0.796 WHIP.

His consistency was remarkable. In 11 starts, he had four scoreless outings and four more of allowing two or fewer runs. He hammered the zone and seemed to be able to paint the black effortlessly.

There was no better example of this than May 5, when he threw the first Orioles no-hitter since Jim Palmer shut down Oakland in 1969. He struck out 12 and saw only one batter reach on a dropped third strike, and a major reason he was able to be so effective was how he started hitters - 26 of 27 Mariners got first-pitch strikes.

But since this is the Orioles we’re talking about, this was not the end of the story. Means hurt his shoulder and left a game against Cleveland on June 5, missed six and a half weeks, then came back against the Rays on July 20 and wasn’t the same guy. He was off. He allowed five earned runs in five innings, and things continued to list.

At first it looked like rustiness was the culprit, but that theory faded once Means compiled a 6.10 ERA over his next six starts. That formerly brilliant 0.796 WHIP climbed to 1.419, and it was enough to start thinking that maybe Means, who saw his fastball spin rate pick up at the start of the season, had benefitted from the adhesive substances that baseball banned while he was still recovering from his injury.

But no good story ends in the middle, and this one is no exception. Means restored some faith and optimism and dispelled some doubts with how he finished his season. Over his final eight starts, Means improved — not quite to where he had been, but certainly better than the weeks before.

He finished with a 4.03 ERA in that stretch, and his WHIP was down to a manageable 1.075. Hitters batted .228 against him — not the .173 from April and May, but not the .301 from the six starts after injury, either. More importantly, the reliability was starting to return, as until a blowup in his final start against a red-hot Toronto lineup, Means had seven straight starts of three runs or fewer, including one start with 6.2 innings of shutout ball against the Phillies on Sept. 20.

So what does this mean? Thanks to a strong finish, it looks like the Orioles should have confidence that their 28-year-old lefty is a top-of-the-rotation pitcher — if not a top-of-the-league pitcher, like it was looking in May. Means’s mid-season swoon was enough to sound alarms that the peak of April and May was a thing of the past, but the way he handled the homestretch showed that while A+ John Means may not come back, B+/A- John Means is a different story.

It’s a little unclear what Means’s future is with the team, since he’s up for arbitration this year and can expect a significant jump from his $550,500 salary next year, but the tea leaves suggest that Means will be back with the team next year.

If that’s the case — you always wonder with the rebuild-prioritizing Orioles — then the 2021 season suggested Baltimore should feel optimistic about its No. 1 guy going forward.

Previous 2021 Orioles player reviews: Valaika/Gutierrez/Mateo, Paul Fry/César Valdez, Watkins/Greene/etc., Ramón Urias, Dean Kremer, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Tyler Wells, Anthony Santander, Cole Sulser, Bruce Zimmermann, Austin Hays, Severino/Wynns, Dillon Tate, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, Matt Harvey, Trey Mancini

Monday: Cedric Mullins