Can John Means Build on a Strong Rookie Season?

26-year-old southpaw John Means put together an impressive rookie season for the Baltimore Orioles. As the most valuable pitcher on a team that placed at the bottom of the league in 2019 for pitching WAR, Means was one of only three Orioles starters to exceed 100 IP. The runner up to Yordan Alvarez for American League ROY, Means managed 16 second-place votes on the back of a 3.00 WAR campaign. His 3.60 ERA was the lowest of any Orioles pitcher (minimum 100 IP) since Wei-Yin Chin put up a 3.34 in 2015. Means also led the team in wins (12) and had the pitching staff’s lowest hard-hit rate (27.5%). Granted, the Orioles were one of the worst teams in baseball, so that alone doesn’t mean much, but when compared to the 75 other pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in 2019 (the cutoff used for all the stats to follow), his chase rate was the seventh-lowest, his zone contact rate was the 24th-lowest, and Means fell just outside of the top-50 in swinging strike rate.

Means hasn’t shown he has the stuff to blow hitters away. His 19% strikeout rate was well below the league average of 23%, though his walk rate (6%) ratioed well with his strikeouts when compared to other starters. Means does, however, surrender quite a lot of fly ball contact, the vast majority coming from his changeup (45%) and four-seam fastball (40%). Still, he managed to keep his FB/HR rate stunted enough to be one of the five lowest in baseball.

Regardless of the kind of contact Means surrendered, his hard-hit rate topped all other pitchers by a fair amount. Messing with hitter’s timing through good sequencing, command, and control work just as well as an elevated strikeout rate.

Pitching in the American League East is no easy task. Take a look at how Means performed compared to the nine AL East pitchers who pitched the most innings against the division. If you sort each column, you’ll note that Means never sits below sixth in any category, save innings pitched.

AL East Starters vs. AL East
Charlie Morton 82.0 22.6% 1.13 12.3% .273 27.6% 3.13
James Paxton 80.1 22.1% 1.18 15.8% .306 37.0% 4.20
Masahiro Tanaka 78.1 16.0% 1.21 15.1% .318 40.1% 4.25
Yonny Chirinos 77.2 16.6% 1.08 18.6% .289 32.9% 4.33
Eduardo Rodriguez 81.0 14.5% 1.16 16.5% .292 29.4% 4.61
John Means 68.0 14.5% 1.18 12.1% .306 23.7% 4.63
Trent Thornton 77.2 11.2% 1.53 11.5% .343 37.0% 4.72
Andrew Cashner 76.0 7.8% 1.37 14.1% .323 33.2% 4.91
J.A. Happ 83.2 14.4% 1.18 17.3% .315 36.8% 4.99
Rick Porcello 71.1 9.6% 1.56 14.6% .364 32.9% 5.23

While Means put up some impressive numbers in 2019, how well positioned he is to repeat his rookie season is a bit murkier.┬áHis 3.60 ERA is somewhat tarnished by an elevated FIP of 4.41, which placed him at the 8th-highest disparity. What’s more, Means’ xFIP was the worst of all qualified pitchers last year, which might portend some regression.

Still, Means has the tools to avoid a step back, and it all starts with his pitching arsenal.

Means’ repertoire consists of a four-seam fastball (51%), a changeup (29%), a slider (14%), and a lightly used curveball (6%), with the changeup and slider being his two highest-rated pitches in 2019. As for how he uses each pitch, he’s generally thrown 50% fastballs to both left and right-handed hitters. He favors his slider to lefties, more so when he’s ahead in the count. When facing righties, Means likes to go to his changeup, favoring the pitch when he’s even or behind in the count.

Against the four-seamer, hitters produced a .273 batting average and a .177 ISO.┬áMeans throws his fastball at league-average velocity and is one of 12 pitchers to use their fastball more than 50% of the time. But what he lacks in speed, he makes up for in movement. According to Brooks Baseball’s Pitch IQ measurements, Means has above average horizontal and vertical break on his four-seamer.

Here’s an example of the kind of horizontal cut Means produces:

The best part of Means’ four-seamer was that it produced the second-highest amount of rise in 2019, taking a back seat only to 2019 American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander:

As for his changeup, Means commands the pitch pretty well and produces quite a bit of movement both horizontally and vertically. He does a great job mixing the pitch with his fastball in a two-strike count and even tosses it at lefties on occasion (11%).

Here’s a closeup look at his changeup grip and release, followed by the pitch action producing a strikeout:

Out of all of his pitches, it’s his slider that yielded the best results. The pitch produced 21 strikeouts in 88 at-bats with a .170 batting average against (.200 BABIP) and an even distribution of groundball, fly ball, and line drive contact. Means mainly used the pitch against left-handed hitters, and because he sees them less often, it (unfortunately) doesn’t get thrown as much as it should.

Means made some changes to the design of his slider in the second half of the season and developed a pretty effective weapon. He adjusted the spin axis by 16 degrees vertically, and along with an extra 100 rpms plus a 0.5 mph drop in velocity, Means was able to add an extra two inches of drop and an additional half-inch of horizontal movement.

Below is an example of his slider adjustment. The first clip is from the first half of 2019, while the second is from the second half. You’ll notice the overlay is a bit off-kilter as it’s designed to match release points so you can see how the pitch shapes changed:

Means faces an uphill battle to repeat what he accomplished his rookie year. His expected stats suggest that he may experience some regression; he still has to pitch against the fearsome lineups of the AL East. That, coupled with teams having had a full season to deconstruct Means’ tendencies and form a better plan of attack when he takes the mound in 2020, adds an extra layer of difficulty.

Yet Means has great tools to work with and build upon. How successful he is will depend on how he prepares for and counters the adjustments teams will make when facing him. One suggestion might be to vary his pitch selection more. Means tends to go fastball-heavy during even or two-strike counts, so replacing it with a secondary option would definitely help.

Means might consider leaning on his changeup a bit more to left-handed hitters, as he throws the pitch just 7% of the time. It has some nice riding action that can tie lefties up when thrown inside, especially since the pitch runs in an extra four inches when sequenced with his four-seamer as seen below:

To right-handed hitters, he should try to use his slider or even the curveball a bit more. The slider, which he favors to lefties, can be more of a chase or set up pitch thrown to the lower edge or just outside of the strike zone since its not really a strike-inducing pitch to righties. Having that random change of pace pitch might keep hitters on their toes a bit more, chiefly as Means gets into deeper counts.

As with the slider, Means’ curveball is best when used more like a chase pitch down and away to righties, as they’ve had success when the pitch hits the strike zone:

Coupled with his ability to keep hitters off-balance with velocity change and flexible pitch locations, implementing some of these adjustments should make Means a more dynamic pitcher. Since Means doesn’t have the velocity or a strong enough arsenal secondary pitches to strike out a Cy Young-level number of hitters, the craftier he can become, the more likely it is that he’ll be able to build off of his strong start in the major leagues.

Pitching strategist. Driveline Baseball pitch design-certified. Systems Administrator for a high school by day, I also provide ESPN with pitching visuals and am the site manager for SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.

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3 years ago

I like the technical discussion about the shape of the pitches and really love the gifs showing the differences (or changes, in the case of the slider). Please, more of this!