At first, it was easy to brush it off. John Means was struggling, sure, but he had also just come back from an injury that kept him out of action for a month and a half. This was just rust, a blip. A little stumble, nothing more.
As Means’s second half woes have continued, however, it’s becoming harder and harder to give them the old “nothing to see here” treatment.
Indeed, there is something to see here when it comes to how Means has pitched since being sidelined on June 5 with a shoulder injury and coming back on July 20. Before the injury, Means was a Cy Young candidate, the owner of a 2.28 ERA, 0.831 WHIP and .182 batting average against - plus a no-hitter, before we found out that they apparently grow on trees this year.
Since then? In five starts, Means is 1-2 with a 5.67 ERA. His WHIP in that stretch has been 1.333, and his average against is .286. His OPS against is .879. He’s allowed four or more runs three times, and in one of the two times he allowed only one earned run (an Aug. 6 loss to the Rays), he allowed eight hits in five innings.
Means in April and May was pitching as consistently as anyone in the game. Not including the game he left with shoulder discomfort after getting only two outs, Means pitched at least six full innings in eight of the 11 starts. In 10 of the 11, he allowed as many or fewer hits than he had innings pitched.
Because of that start, Means is still in a high percentage across Major League Baseball in several key categories. His average exit velocity (89th percentile), hard hit percentage (70th), fastball spin rate (83rd) and walk rate (96th) remain either above-average or exceptional.
Oddly enough, some of those stats don’t show as wild a disparity as the overall numbers would suggest. Pre-injury, Means had a hard-hit percentage of 36 percent, his average exit velocity was 85.8 miles per hour, and hitters barreled him up 18 times in 263 plate appearances. Post-injury, the hard-hit percentage is actually down to 33 percent, while the average exit velocity is only 86 and the barrels are 10 instances in 120 plate appearances.
Still, even the finer metrics suggest something is up. Means was striking out 26 percent of hitters before the injury; it’s been 15 since. The expected average before was .221, and it’s .264 now.
There have been stark dips in Means’s performance with his signature changeup. Before he went on the injured list, batters hit only .156 off of Means’s change, and struck out 30 percent of the time. Since he’s come back, the pitch has been less of a weapon for him. Batters have hit .250 off the changeup, and struck out only 13 percent of the time.
It’s unclear what the reason for the slump is. Perhaps Means, whose fastball spin rate picked up in May, is one of the large list of pitchers who are finding it harder to get batters out after MLB cracked down on adhesive substances during his injured list stint. Perhaps the shoulder is not 100 percent. Perhaps he simply had a feel for his pitches when he was going every fifth day that he lost while recuperating and hasn’t been able to get back. Who knows.
Clearly, though, it’s not good news for the Orioles, who likely figured they had a bona fide ace early in the season and have seen Means struggle to reach that level of late.
It’s not good regardless of whether the plan was to keep him or try to be aggressive in moving him this offseason. If the Orioles were planning on keeping him, they’re likely finding themselves reassessing just what they have in the 28-year-old - who had a 4.53 ERA last year - and have gone from heading into 2022 with one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball to doing so with a pitcher who may be an ace or who may be more of a No. 2 or 3 pitcher (on a team with more pitching depth than the Orioles have, of course). There’s less certainty in terms of the caliber of pitcher Means is than there was earlier in the year.
And if they’re planning on dealing him, Means has likely seen his stock dip since his return. It would be too much to expect the Erik Bedard trade all over again, but had Means kept up his Cy Young contention, the O’s would have had an ideal situation and a heck of an asset on their hands. Now, the same questions Baltimore likely has about what Means will be going forward, potential suitors must have as well.
Means can make this all a moot point if he regains his form for August and September, but given the way he’s pitched of late, it’s no longer a safe assumption that he’ll be able to do just that.