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John Means’ no-hitter was one of the greatest games ever pitched

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Breaking down the statistical significance of one of the greatest pitching performances in team history.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

You’re not over it, right? I’m not over it. While the thrill is still fresh, it’s worth emphasizing how brilliant and dominant a performance John Means’s no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday really was.

You knew that Means pounded the strike zone, but his command was truly elite. Of Means’s 113 pitches, 79 were strikes, a strike percentage of 70%. Most impressively, he threw 26 of 27 first-pitch strikes, an absurd 96.3% first-pitch strike rate overall. This is a feat that’s only been achieved by one other pitcher who’s faced least 25 batters in a game since 2000 (the Twins’ Brad Radke, who tossed first-pitch strikes to 27 of 28 batters on June 30, 2004). Unsurprisingly, Means now has the second-best first-strike percentage of any pitcher in the league.

Over nine innings on Wednesday, Means got 26 swinging strikes, the most by an Orioles pitcher since pitch-tracking began in 2008. Batters whiffed more times on his changeup than they made contact: 14 out of 24 changeups he threw. The Mariners really didn’t make much contact, even weak contact. Batters put the John Means fastball in play just six times during the game, with a piddling exit velocity that averaged 76.3 mph. Their barrel percentage: 0%. Those are some fooled bats.

Means doesn’t have a 100-mph fastball or the nastiest sinker in the game. He even says that his changeup doesn’t “get a whole lot of action (i.e. movement).” It just looks spookily like his fastball and clocks in about 10 mph slower. What Means did on Wednesday was simply execute. Brilliantly. And, it turns out, such sustained consistency and dominance over nine innings is quite rare.

Entering Wednesday’s game, there had been 307 no-hitters in modern major league baseball history. Means’s is No. 308. In Orioles team history, there had been five previous no-hitters. Means’s is No. 6. Even more striking, there’s a strong argument that Means’s 27-up, 27-down, 12-strikeout performance on Wednesday dwarfs all of the remaining five. The closest competition would be Hoyt Wilhelm’s brilliant complete-game performance on September 20, 1958—but even the Hall of Famer walked two and struck out “only” eight.

Put it in perspective: Palmer, Moose, Cuellar, McNally, Pappas, Flanagan. None of them ever pitched a game this good.

There have been 23 perfect games in major league baseball history, but John Means is one of just twelve more pitchers who would have joined the club but for a fielding error or some similar random happenstance event. Since 2000, there have been five such near-perfect no-no’s. It’s pretty elite company. One time was in 2014, when Clayton Kershaw was denied in his bid for perfection by a throwing error by shortstop Hanley Ramirez. In 2015, a 17-strikeout effort by Max Scherzer was spoiled by a throwing error from Yunel Escobar. In 2017, Rich Hill’s bid for perfection died with an error by Dodgers third baseman Logan Forsythe in the ninth inning. Ouch. John Means’ no-hit, no-walk complete game shutout is the only near-miss resulting from a dropped third strike/wild pitch. In fairness, it happened in the third inning before anyone even thought to get superstitious, and catcher Pedro Severino called an otherwise brilliant game. Means says he’s happy with the result and “couldn’t care less” that it wasn’t a perfect game. That’s good enough for me.

Game Score is a stat created by Bill James to measure a pitcher’s dominance in any given start based on outs recorded, hits allowed, strikeouts, and other metrics. James himself called it “a kind of garbage stat” he created because it was “fun to play around with.” No matter. Game score certainly correlates with pitching greatness. A game score of 100+ by a starting pitcher is so rare that there have been only 16 such nine-inning games in history—thrown by the likes of Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and a few others. On Wednesday, John Means scored a 99. What does that mean? Just that, based on game score, Means’s no-hitter ranks in the Top 20 greatest starter performances in baseball history. Another example of a 99 game score? A 16-strikeout, one-hit complete game by Nolan Ryan on April 26, 1990. Put it a different way: Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Steve Carlton, John Smoltz and Madison Bumgarner never pitched such a game in their entire careers.

If you weren’t lucky enough to catch Wednesday’s game, go watch the whole thing on replay right now. If you did catch it, be glad. You may have been around for no more and no less than the greatest pitching performance in Orioles history—even one of the top performances by a major-league starting pitcher, period. I get that that’s an inherently controversial statement. But passionate argument about the highs and lows of athletic achievement is what sports fandom is about, right?

This is the 2021 Baltimore Orioles, people! Crazy stuff.

Isn’t baseball great?