After superb finish, O's knew they had their ace back

It was just a four-start sample and that's not a lot of innings. But it was a stunning four starts. For the Orioles, it was a stretch of games where they realized their ace was back. And while an injury kept left-hander John Means from making the opening day start this year, if they had to pick that guy for 2021 today, it would be Means. An easy call.

A year that began with Means dealing with left shoulder fatigue later produced the emotions surrounding the passing of his father. On the field, the stops and starts left him with a record of 0-3 with an ERA of 8.10 and a .947 OPS against through six starts. But over his last four starts, Means went 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA and a .488 OPS against.

It was a remarkable turnaround led by a fastball which he could both command expertly and throw with late movement and life. It was exploding on hitters and they often could not connect against it. Means' strikeout rate was 5.4 per nine innings in his first six starts and 11.4 over the last four. Those four starts came against good hitting teams. In team OPS this year in the major leagues, the Mets were No. 3, the Yankees No. 5, the Rays No. 13 and the Blue Jays No. 11.

Means-Throws-White-Home-Sidebar.jpgOn Sept. 20 - in his next-to-last start - he fanned a career-high 12 Tampa Bay Rays over 5 2/3 innings. His previous career high for strikeouts was seven. He fanned 10 through four innings and at one point struck out seven batters in a row to tie Sammy Stewart's club record. Tampa Bay batters whiffed on 10 of the first 13 fastballs he threw that day. His whiff rate on that pitch for the game of 44 percent was a career best.

Means' changeup was a huge pitch throughout his 2019 season - a season that ended with him finishing second in the American League Rookie of the Year vote. But at the end of 2020, when he walked three and fanned 30 in 23 2/3 innings in those last four starts, he was leaning more heavily on that fastball.

He especially leaned on the pitch in his last three starts. His percentage usage of the fastball in those games was 59, 67 and 57 percent. And the changeup use fell in the games to 22, 12 and 15 percent. But as manager Brandon Hyde pointed out, Means was making good use of all four of his pitches, including two breaking balls, and all four were plus at times late in the year.

"He's right on course," Hyde said after Means' last start. "Don't know if you can pitch much better than he did his last three starts. I just love that he's attacking hitters with his fastball, his changeup is back, I like both breaking balls, you can't sit on a pitch. He's pitching like a top-of-the-rotation guy."

He sure was.

With Means pitching like that, Alex Cobb ending his year with two good outings and the emergence of rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, along with Bruce Zimmermann making his debut, you can see how the Orioles believe their rotation is trending up. That group did allow one earned run or less in 12 of the club's final 23 games.

If you want to know why teams covet young pitchers, consider this: Means has made 37 starts for the Orioles, but is not yet arbitration-eligible. That will not happen for him until after the 2021 season.

There were areas Means will look to improve on next season. His homer rate of 1.3 per nine from 2019 went up to 2.5 in 2020. He had a three-start stretch where he gave up six homers, but he allowed just one in each of those last four games. Means produced a first-inning ERA of 9.31. In home games, he went 1-3 with a 7.06 ERA. He also averaged 17.1 pitches per inning.

So for a player always looking to find an area to get better, Means has a few areas to look at. But his end-of-year performance was dominant and ace-like at times. No matter who is in that rotation come next season, Means heads it up.

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