This Means had a remarkable end to his 2020 season

No doubt left-hander John Means is the Orioles’ top starting pitcher and likely opening day starter for 2021. But is he an ace pitcher?

Not quite yet, but he sure showed signs of it in his last four 2020 starts. If Means can become the Orioles’ first bonafide ace since Mike Mussina, he will truly beat the odds. Unlike Mussina, he was not a first-round draft pick or hyped prospect. He was drafted in round 11, the 331st player taken in the 2011 draft. He was never ranked as a top 30 prospect by Baseball America. I do believe he slipped into the back end of an O’s top 30 one time.

From not all that well regarded to regarded as the club’s best pitcher. Maybe he does mean business.

Means could be a late bloomer. Over parts of three seasons at Double-A Bowie, he recorded a collective ERA of 4.34. Good enough to give him more chances, but not nearly enough for anyone to predict what was to come.

But in 2018, Means recorded a 3.48 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk. And over 202 big league innings, he is 14-15 with a 3.97 ERA, a 1.114 WHIP, 2.0 a walk rate and a 7.4 strikeout rate.

Thumbnail image for Means-John-Delivers-at-White-Sox-Gray-Sidebar.jpgIn the 2020 season, he went 2-4 with a 4.53 ERA. It was a year that began with Means dealing with left shoulder fatigue and 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, a .488 OPS against and a 0.63 WHIP.

It was a remarkable turnaround led by a fastball that 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, too. In team OPS, the Mets were No. 3 in the majors, the Yankees No. 5, the Rays No. 13 and the Blue Jays No. 11.

In those four games, Means was throwing his fastball 43 percent, 59 percent, 67 percent and 57 percent of the time. He was leaning on a pitch that he was throwing with good velocity and excellent late movement. The strikeouts were coming, as he had an outstanding fastball to go with that changeup and an improved slider and curveball. He truly had four pitches and could use any among them, getting ahead of hitters and then putting them away.

In the four starts, Means allowed 12 hits over 23 2/3 innings with three walks to 30 strikeouts.

On 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. His 44 percent whiff rate on that pitch (percent of swings that got misses) was a career best.

No one is suggesting Means can come and throw 200 innings like his final 24 of last season. But maybe he can approach that more often or produce his best stats yet in 2021. Perhaps the best is yet to come for a pitcher who will not turn 28 until April 24. He is four years from free agency and will not even be arbitration-eligible for the first time until after the coming season.

So the Orioles are looking at a pitcher still on the lower end of the salary spectrum whose pitches have shown improvement over his two full big league seasons. He’s driven to be good and is doing so in front of our eyes. They’ve got him under team control for a long time.

He just might have the potential to be their next true ace.

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