It is a fair and reasonable question to ask about Orioles left-hander John Means: After he had such a strong 2019 season, will he regress next season? What will it take to keep him performing at such a high level?
Means went 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA and 1.135 WHIP and finished second in voting for the American League Rookie of the Year Award. He made the All-Star team, going 7-4 with a 2.50 ERA in the first half. The last O’s starter with a better season-long ERA was Wei-Yin Chen at 3.34 in 2015.
Means came up seven innings short of qualifying for the ERA title, but if he had he would have finished seventh in the AL. Among AL pitchers throwing 150 or more innings, he was fifth in walks per nine innings at 2.2, sixth in WHIP, eighth in ERA and 12th in strikeout/walk ratio at 3.18.
Means did post a 4.85 ERA after the All-Star break, but his struggles came mostly in his first few games of the second half. He had an 8.34 ERA in his first five starts after the All-Star Game, but pitched to a 3.26 ERA over his last eight appearances.
It was really just a bump in the road.
No doubt Means may have to make adjustments in 2020 as hitters come up with new plans and ways to try to get to him. But some of that may have already happened for Means. Call it a bit of a pre-emptive strike against opposing batters.
Fastballs accounted for 51 percent of Means’ pitches last season, and he went with the changeup 29 percent of the time, but his percentage of sliders and curveballs increased later in the year. Even as he was bursting onto the scene as a quality starter early last season, the Orioles were encouraging him to become more than just a fastball-changeup pitcher.
The changeup was a great pitch for Means and helped him against some of the tough right-handed batters in the AL East. But it seemed that if he were to enjoy long-lasting success, Means would need to expand on that, and he did.
Means listened to his coaches and threw his breaking balls - particularly his slider - more as the year went on, and the slider became a very solid third pitch for him.
For the season, opponent batters hit just .206 off his changeup and swung and missed 14.6 percent of the time against the changeup, according to stats from BrooksBaseball.net. Against his slider, batters hit .169 and whiffed at 13.2 percent of his pitches.
In August and September, Means used his slider and curve more, but not at the expense of his changeup. It was his fastball that he threw less. In August, he threw a combined 23 percent curves and sliders and 49 percent fastballs. In September he threw 25 percent curves and sliders and 45 percent fastballs.
It was a subtle change of the pitch mix and hitters had to respect his slider more and more. In fact, in August, his slider had a higher whiff rate than his changeup (17.1 to 16.0 percent). In September, that whiff rate was 18.5 for the slider and 13.3 for the changeup. He was throwing the pitch more while at the same time getting a higher percentage of swings and misses with it.
The increased slider usage could be a big help to Means as he begins 2020 as a pitcher with three solid offerings who can also mix in a show-me curveball to have a second breaking pitch. As 2019 went on and the word about his outstanding changeup made its way around the game, Means both improved his slider and threw it more.
It should serve him well when next season starts.