Fine, I’ll say it: The Baltimore Orioles aren’t fun to watch. The team just lost its 38th game and is on pace for a 113-loss season. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing fun about them. John Means can be fun. A lot of the fun comes from the fact that he’s not someone you would have expected to lead a starting rotation in ERA and WAR coming into the year, but he is (albeit tied with Andrew Cashner at 0.6).
Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Means only had one major league appearance and five seasons of minor league ball to his name (while spending almost two seasons in Double-A). An 11th-round pick in 2014 out of the University of West Virginia, Means was never considered to be a top prospect. He went unmentioned in our Orioles top prospects list coming into this season, for instance. Because there weren’t meany extensive reports on Means available on the internet, I asked Luke Siler of Orioles Hangout for his assessment of the left-hander as a minor leaguer.
Before the improvements, Means was that typical Triple-A depth player who performed well enough to keep fans intrigued but not well enough to merit an MLB role. The profile was a fastball topping at 92, but sitting more 89~91 mph, a loopy below average curveball, a fringe average slider and an average changeup with average command… nothing was exciting but he mixes pitches well and can land them all for strikes.
Means was still flew largely under-the-radar when the season began. His first three appearances were out of the bullpen. He did, however, put up numbers that warranted some attention: 5.2 IP, 1 ER, 2 BB, 9 K. It was a very small sample, but there was promise there. He garnered attention in his first outing on March 31 versus the Yankees when he struck out five hitters in 3.1 innings on the way to a victory. Here’s how his pitches fared that day:
|Pitch Type||Count||Swinging Strikes||Called Strikes||Fouls|
If you are like me, the number of changeups Means threw will jump out at you. The next thing you’ll notice is the amount of swinging strikes it garnered. Sometimes it’s simple: hitting is about timing, and pitching is about messing up that timing. Means neutralized the Yankee bats by mixing in changeups at the same rate as his fastball. Here is a prime example from the game, when he faced the dangerous Giancarlo Stanton in the bottom of the fourth inning. He started it off with a changeup, which Stanton whiffed on for strike one.
With Stanton down 0-1, Means threw basically the same pitch and got basically the same whiff.
For the third pitch, he threw yet another changeup — this time below the strike zone and away — and Stanton went fishing for a three-pitch strikeout.
After his first three outings, the Orioles recognized what Means could do and put him in the rotation, starting April 9. In eight starts (and a relief appearance) since, Means has pitched to a 3.14 ERA in 43.0 innings while allowing 37 hits, 13 walks, and striking out 29. His 4.58 FIP suggests that his results are outperforming his efficiency, but it does warrant a look at how Means has evolved into a major league rotation arm after being an org lefty for years. That, in itself, is a remarkable turnaround.
First, Means experienced a velocity boost. Before 2019, his fastball sat in the high-80s. According to a Baltimore Sun article by Jon Meoli, Means went through a strength program that helped his fastball reach as high as 95 mph this spring. In his lone 2018 outing, Means averaged 90.1 mph with his heat. It has gone up to 91.8 mph this season with about a 200 rpm improvement to his fastball spin (2,166 to 2,346), which now ranks in the 71st percentile in the majors. His fastball results, however, has been rather mediocre. He’s allowed a .288/.374/.425 line with a .348 wOBA with the heat. They are not the worst numbers, but it’s far from confidence inspiring.
The real meat of this post, however, belongs to his changeup. A few weeks ago, our own David Laurila talked to Means about the development of his changeup. Thrown 27.7% of the time, it’s proven to be much more effective than his fastball, allowing only a .169/.205/.390 line with a .245 wOBA. One of the masterminds behind Means’ new changeup usage came from P3 staff instructor Austin Meine, who looked at available data online and decided to focus on the pitch. Another was Orioles minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt, who was brought over to Baltimore from Houston by general manager Mike Elias. This is a classic case of recognizing a talent and working to maximize it – and it’s worked well so far.
Here’s an interesting caveat. As much as Means throws his changeup, he’s only thrown 13 of them to left-handed hitters all season. Meanwhile, he has thrown a whopping 247 of them to right-handed hitters. This is a very stark contrast, but in principle, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. A conventional view on changeups is that they work to neutralize the platoon advantage (even though there have been others who’s made an effort to use the pitch against same-handed hitters). Means’s changeup has worked fine against right-handed hitters, as they have mustered just a .263 wOBA against it.
Means, as a lefty pitcher, does pretty well against left-handed hitters – a 29.2% strikeout rate, a 3.11 FIP, and a .283 wOBA. Against right-handed hitters? Not as great: 15.5% strikeout rate, 5.05 FIP, and a .314 wOBA. My first thought was to imagine how much worse he would fare against right-handed hitters if not for his changeup. My second thought, which was more of a question, was to wonder what is it that makes him struggle against righties despite his changeup working so well.
I looked at Statcast to diagnose which one of his other pitches proved ineffective against right-handed hitters, and hoo boy. While his fastball has generated a mediocre .326 wOBA, his slider (.536 wOBA) and curve (.758 wOBA) were even worse. His curve, in particular, has had disastrous results, as right-handed hitters have amassed a .600 batting average with a 1.200 slugging percentage against the offering. The pitch has a quite low spin rate (13th percentile in the majors), and a lot of them that have ended up in the strike zone have gotten crushed, as you can see below:
Even though Means has predominantly relied on fastball-changeup mix, because his other secondary pitches have shown to be quite hittable by right-handed hitters, it has left a quite stark contrast in his platoon splits. It’s possible that these numbers are inflated thanks to a small sample size, but it hasn’t given us reason to be confident in those two pitches, either. This is definitely easier said than done, but I think the next step in improving Means’s arsenal would be on his slider or curve — especially if he wants to survive as a big league starting pitcher. He will likely need an effective third pitch to secure a spot in a rotation long-term. With his slider and curve shown to be ineffective against right-handed hitters, we can’t say that he has a sure third pitch to give hitters a hard time.
Means is far from a perfect pitcher. In the major leagues, after some time, hitters can feast on a pitcher’s imperfections. I’d say Means is more interesting than good at this point. He is, however, a guy worth following. I would be interested in seeing how the league adjusts to the lefty as the season goes on, and how Means himself adjusts once hitters have a more complete book on him. For now, Means is one of the few bright spots in an organization that could certainly use more of them, and has to be hoping that what they’ve seen from him is not a flash in the pan.