John Means, Potential Trade Target

John Means is the best pitcher on the Baltimore Orioles. In a different world, that might be exciting to Baltimore fans as the team builds a contender. An 11th round draft pick in 2014, Means climbed the minor league ladder, burst into the majors with a 3.60 ERA in 2019, and started throwing harder over the subsequent years. Can he be the best pitcher on a playoff team? I’m skeptical. But can he be the third-best? Definitely, and that’s a really cool outcome for someone who was never supposed to make it this far.

Of course, modern baseball being what it is, Means likely won’t be on the next playoff team in Baltimore. Instead, he’ll probably get traded for whatever the O’s can get, because he’s arbitration-eligible and only three years from free agency. You don’t build generational team wealth by passing up the opportunity to trade your good players for future considerations, at least not the way Baltimore is attempting to build for the future. The team is reportedly looking to trade Means, and I think they’ll find a match. So let’s talk about what the team that wins the Means bidding will be getting for their prospects and salary relief.

If you trade for Means, you’re not doing it for the strikeouts. You could look at his career numbers to tell you that, or you could look at his performance in his last 14 starts after returning from an IL stint. He struck out only 20% of the batters he faced, which isn’t cover-your-eyes bad but definitely shouldn’t top your rotation.

You’re not doing it to stifle home runs, either: some pitchers suppress home runs, but it’s safe to say that Means isn’t one of them. He’s a fly ball pitcher without huge swing-and-miss stuff. Combine that with the homer-friendly confines of Camden Yards, and you get a 1.84 HR/9, the 11th-highest mark among starters last year.

No, if you trade for John Means, you’re doing it for three reasons. First, he doesn’t walk anyone. He finished fourth among starters with 100 innings pitched last year with a 4.4% walk rate. If you never surrender any free passes, homers are less devastating – and again, that’s important for Means, even if leaving Baltimore will tamp down on the homers somewhat.

Second, you’d be acquiring him for the popups. That sounds silly, because popups are just batters making mistakes. Only, Means was first among starters in popups per batted ball last year. He was first in pop ups per plate appearance, too, in case you were worried about the denominator being weird. Since 2019, his first full season in the majors, he’s first among starters in both categories (Caleb Smith edges him out, but partially as a reliever). Popups are near-automatic outs, and Means gets more of them than anyone else.

Lastly, the team trading for Means would be acquiring him because they think they can make him better. The building blocks of a great pitcher are there, as strange as that sounds to say. It’s just a matter of working with Means to emphasize what’s best, while hopefully limiting his weak points simultaneously.

I’m writing this article, so I’m clearly on the Means bandwagon. I’m not claiming he’s a top-10 pitcher in baseball, but I think that an enterprising team could turn a line that’s already solid into an excellent number two starter. Like many players in the game, it boils down to one thing – don’t throw your fastball so much – but hey, we’ve got time. Let’s take a meandering tour of his stuff before getting to that conclusion.

Against lefties, Means is a bully. He relies mainly on his fastball and slider, but he mixes in his curve and changeup roughly 10% of the time each. The result is a phenomenally uncomfortable at-bat, because they all seem to come out of his hand with the same spin:

This presents hitters with quite the dilemma. The slider is a strange one – the least drop of any lefty slider and also less horizontal break than average. It’s almost a cutter – strip out the effects of gravity, and the pitch actually rises nearly six inches on its flight homeward. His fastball? It’s one of the best in the game when it comes to vertical movement. The pitch breaks downward by less than a foot on its path home. Exactly one pitcher in all of baseball – Demarcus Evans – has a slower fastball that drops less. Means gets top-tier rise, in other words.

That two-pitch combination comes out of his hand at roughly the same release point and spin direction. Then, they diverge and the slider dips precipitously on a relative basis. His delivery makes that slider play up – Means is short and upright when he throws, which gives his pitches meaningful downward tilt. That’s not ideal for his fastball – it averaged a -6.9 degree vertical approach angle this year, in the awkward middle where angle doesn’t appear to have much impact on swinging strikes. But it benefits the slider, which looks very strange by the time it crosses the plate.

The slider doesn’t have much innate vertical movement, as we already covered. But by throwing it from such a high initial position, Means creates a natural high-to-low path, independent of the spin he imparts on the ball. The ball is descending quite rapidly (-8.3 degree VAA) when it crosses the plate. When he locates it just off the plate low, it’s even steeper on average: -9.1 degrees. Those steep negative angles create plenty of whiffs despite middling break, which explains how Means gets average slider results despite unimpressive measurables on the pitch. When he drops in a curveball, it’s an even steeper downward break. Lefties either take it or flail.

If I were a team acquiring Means, I wouldn’t change a thing about how he handles lefties. I might look into his behavior against righties, though. There, Means simplifies his arsenal: he throws roughly 50% fastballs, 30% changeups, and 20% curveballs, with his slider nowhere to be found. That lets him feature his stellar changeup, but I’m not in love with the way he mixes the pitches.

See, despite its rising nature, his fastball isn’t a true swing-and-miss pitch. It’s roughly league average in terms of contact rate despite being 99th percentile when it comes to vertical movement. It’s likely because of the vertical approach angle – up in the zone where Means likes to throw, you want a flat-angle fastball rather than his downward-tilted one – but whatever the cause, the upshot is that when Means throws his fastball while up in the count, he’s courting disaster.

Early in the count, letting your opponent put the ball in play isn’t the end of the world. Sure, it’s risky, but they might foul it off or make an out. Also, a ball in play is more valuable than the average at-bat, but not by a huge margin. League-wide non-pitcher wOBA was .314 this year, while wOBA on contact was .370. If you give up contact early in the count, or in a hitter’s count, you’re letting your opponent go from an okay situation to a slightly better one. Means might give up a lot of homers, but he also collects a pile of popups, so his overall contact quality is roughly average.

In a pitcher’s count, the math is far different. Consider a 1-2 count. After reaching a 1-2 count, hitters produced a .225 wOBA in 2021. Letting them get from that baseline to putting a ball in play is the worst possible case. You’re pretty likely to strike someone out in a 1-2 count. A ball in play is far better for the hitter than a strikeout, obviously, which is why pitchers work so hard to avoid contact.

Throwing a pitch the hitter takes for a ball isn’t great either, of course. Here’s a junk stat, but one that I think explains Means’s occasional struggles with righties: 62.1% of the fastballs he threw to right-handers while up in the count were either taken for a ball or put into play. That’s the highest mark in baseball among lefties. In other words, no one in baseball gets bad outcomes more often when throwing a fastball in a pitcher’s count.

It seems to me that Means is in his own head a bit. He knows, naturally enough, that it’s bad to let a batter put a fastball in play when they’re behind in the count. The problem is, batters mostly don’t swing at fastballs outside the zone, and Means misses a lot when he goes to the heater. He threw 309 fastballs to righties in 0-1, 0-2, and 1-2 counts last year. Two-hundred of them went for balls. Heck, this is just a problem overall, not against righties: no pitcher in baseball missed the zone more frequently with their fastball in pitcher’s counts.

Against lefties, that’s not the end of the world. Means could subtract some fastballs there, but he’s doing well enough as is. Against righties, when he’s already at a natural disadvantage, feeding them so many fastballs – and again, they’re mostly balls or balls in play – is eroding what should be an edge for him. He has a devastating changeup and usable curve. Given that, he probably shouldn’t have the second-highest fastball percentage (ahead in the count, lefty pitchers vs. righties) in baseball, trailing only Robbie Ray.

I can somewhat understand why Means is interested in his fastball, or at least why people want him to throw it when he’s ahead in the count. Riding four-seamers are swing-and-miss pitches, and Means gets more ride than nearly anyone else in baseball. But thanks to his high release point, he doesn’t miss as many bats with the pitch as you’d hope.

If I traded for Means, I’d give him one simple directive: stop throwing fastballs to righties when you’re ahead in the count. He threw 264 two-strike fastballs to righties last year. He got strikeouts on 15.2% of those, better only than Keegan Akin. Meanwhile, 22.5% of his changeups and 20% of his curveballs finished the job. At the same time, more of his fastballs went for called balls than either of his secondary pitches. There was essentially no metric where you’d prefer fastballs in these counts that should work in Means’s favor. Despite that, he threw them all the time. You’d be hard-pressed to find a less congruous mix of pitch effectiveness and pitch selection.

So that’s it! Nearly 2,000 words about a solid starter on a team destined for fifth in the AL East. But hey, it’s a lockout, and I really do think that Means could be a difference maker next year. It’s easy! All you have to do is trade for him, then make him stop throwing his signature rising fastball. Fine, maybe it’s not that easy – but if you can pull it off, you might be getting a great starter instead of a just a good one.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

I’ve only been to a couple of games at Camden Yards. I did not realize it had the highest HR park factor in MLB.

kick me in the GO NATSmember
2 years ago
Reply to  eph1970

when it’s hot the ball really flies.