Still the O’s ace: A look at John Means’ strong season

In 2019, left-hander John Means emerged as a surprising staff ace for the Orioles. No, he was not an ace, meaning a No. 1 pitcher, to rival the very best in the game, but he sure was the Orioles’ ace.

In 2021, were there still any doubters, Means proved he is still that.

Outside of his own won-loss record, Means’ stats in 2021 look a lot like his numbers in 2019 with a few improvements.

You could look at his year broken into about three different seasons - there was a sizzling hot start to his year that included a no-hitter, a mediocre stretch that included time on the injured list and a pretty solid finish, even though his very last start was probably his worst of the year.

In 2019, Means went 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA, 1.135 WHIP, 8.0 hits per nine innings, 1.3 homers, 2.2 walks and 7.0 strikeouts. His ERA+ was 131, or 31 percent above league average.

In 2021, he went 6-9 with a 3.62 ERA, 1.030 WHIP, 7.7 hits per nine, 1.8 homers, 1.6 walks and 8.2 strikeouts. His ERA+ was 126. And, yes, he was more likely to give up a homer, yielding a career-high 30, than a walk, yielding 26. For the season, 45 of his 64 runs allowed came via a longball.

Means-Celebrates-No-Hitter-Sidebar.jpgIt was a season where Means made his first opening day start, recorded a career-best 12 quality starts, allowed two earned runs or less in 16 outings out of 26 and on May 5 pitched the sixth no-hitter in team history.

He threw first-pitch strikes to 26 of 27 batters in the no-hitter (96.3 percent) as the Orioles beat Seattle, only missing on the 18th batter of the game with two outs in the sixth inning. It was the highest first-pitch strike percentage in a complete game since 1990. The only pitcher since 2000 to face at least 25 batters in a game and have a higher first-pitch strike percentage was Minnesota’s Brad Radke on June 30, 2004 (27 of 28, 96.4 percent). Means recorded 26 swinging strikes (14 via the changeup, eight on his four-seam fastball, three via the slider and one a curveball), the most in a game by an Orioles pitcher since pitch-tracking began in 2008.

Through his first eight games, Means was 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA and a .438 OPS against. Then, over an eight-start stretch wrapped around his IL stint, he went 0-3 with a 5.87 ERA and a .869 OPS against. Then, over 11 starts leading into his final one, he went 2-5 with a 3.84 ERA and a .733 OPS against. On Oct. 2 at Toronto, he allowed seven runs (six earned) over three innings, both the runs allowed and earned runs tying a season-worst.

“An amazing start to the year,” manager Brandon Hyde said before his last start. “The first month or two, he was one of the better pitchers in the game, from a numbers standpoint, what he was doing on the mound the first month or two. He was pitching like an All-Star or a top-of-the-rotation guy and then had a little bit of shoulder fatigue that shut him down for a while.”

When he returned, Means got hit a bit and his changeup was not consistently sharp. But Means got it going again and was pitching to an ERA of 2.78 in his previous six starts before that last one. And his road ERA of 2.27 was tops in the American League. He finished the year with a road ERA of 2.84.

“If you look at the body of work, he’s got a three-something ERA in the American League East, you know, without really having his best stuff for me the second half,” said Hyde. “He has pitched at times this year like an All-Star type pitcher, and every single start this year, he’s given us a chance to win and that’s what a major league pitcher does. ... So he’s had a really good year and real excited about John going forward.”

And even with his mid-season struggles and that last start at Toronto, Means still put up numbers that ranked among the best in the AL had he enough innings to qualify for the league leaders. He fell 15 1/3 innings short, but his ERA would have ranked eighth-best in the AL and his WHIP would be No. 1.

In fact, going into that final outing, Means was looking to become the fourth O’s pitcher in team history (minimum 100 innings) to post a sub-1.000 WHIP. He would have joined this trio.

* Dave McNally, 1968 - 0.842 in 273 innings
* Dick Hall, 1963 - 0.958 in 111 2/3 innings
* Stu Miller, 1965 - 0.997 in 119 1/3 innings

Means season set him up to get a very nice salary bump as a first-time arbitration-eligible player. projected he would earn $3.1 through arbitration for the 2022 season.

If he produces then as he has for the Orioles in the full seasons of 2019 and 2021, Means will be very much worth that amount and will head up the Orioles rotation for yet another season. He stands out on a team desperate for solid and consistent pitching.

Now the Orioles just need to find more like him.

Click here for a look back at the story of the story of the no-no.

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