John Means Tested the Limits of What a No-Hitter Could Be

2021 must be the year for bizarro no-hitters. First, Joe Musgrove threw the first no-no in Padres history and was just a hit batsmen away from a perfect game. Likewise with Carlos Rodón’s no-hitter — one Roberto Pérez-sized foot away from perfection. Madison Bumgarner threw a seven-inning no-hitter that wasn’t officially a no-hitter. On Wednesday afternoon, John Means became the third pitcher to throw an official no-hitter this year, facing just 27 Mariners and coming oh so close to perfection.

A fan unfamiliar with the minutiae of the baseball rule book might wonder why Means’s dominant start wasn’t considered a perfect game. After all, he faced the minimum number of batters without allowing a walk, hit-by-pitch, or an error. For Means, his dalliance with perfection was thwarted by a wild pitch on a third strike, allowing Sam Haggerty to reach base. He was the 12th pitcher to face 27 batters in a no-hitter without throwing a perfect game. It was the first no-hitter in Major League history where the only baserunner reached on a dropped third strike.

Rule 5.05(a)(2) is an oddity that has lived on in the baseball rulebook for centuries. It’s a relic of a time when strikeout and walks didn’t exist and the batter simply had three attempts to hit the ball. After their third try, the ball was considered in play and the batter could attempt to run to first base to avoid the out. As the game evolved over time, and strikeouts were introduced, this archaic rule lived on, one that, in this author’s opinion, doesn’t really make a lot of sense in the context of the modern game.

That dropped third strike rule was the only thing separating Means from the first perfect game since Félix Hernández threw his in 2012. That it happened in the third inning made it completely innocuous during the run of play. Haggerty was thrown out attempting to steal second a few pitches later and the game moved on. Except Means retired the next 19 batters in a row and that seemingly benign event became the only blemish on his otherwise perfect afternoon.

All of the ensuing discussion of this weird rule shouldn’t take away from the dominance Means displayed on Wednesday. He struck out 12 Mariners, utilizing pinpoint fastball command and a nasty changeup. He induced 14 swinging strikes on 24 swings with his changeup and over half of the changeups he threw resulted in a swinging or called strike.

In an era where Devin Williams is throwing changeups that move like a screwball and Trevor Bauer attempted to design a changeup to mirror the movement of his slider, Means’s straight changeup is a nice change of pace. He doesn’t get a ton of fade with the pitch and it doesn’t fall off the table either. He simply throws it with the same arm action as his fastball, only it comes in 10 miles per hour slower. “Honestly, I don’t get a whole lot of action on my changeup,” he told David Laurila in 2019. “Hitters just swing so far ahead of it that it doesn’t really matter.”

He struggled with his changeup last year, which was likely related to his velocity spike he saw across his arsenal in 2020. He had spent much of the spring lockdown working on his mechanics to generate additional velocity out of his fastball but that work had some other negative knock-on effects on his changeup; he added two ticks to his heater but four to his changeup. That diminished the elite velocity differential that had made his changeup so effective in 2019. The whiff rate on the pitch dropped to 23.4% and opposing batters produced a .349 wOBA off of it.

This year, his fastball velocity has taken a slight step back, averaging 92.5 mph but still harder than it was when he debuted in the majors. His changeup’s average velocity, meanwhile, has dropped back down to 82.8 mph, faster than it was in 2019, but regaining the velocity differential he had enjoyed that year. And with that differential intact again, the results have followed. He’s allowed just .167 wOBA off the pitch and it’s whiff rate is a career-high 37.4%.

On Wednesday, his changeup was as good as it’s been all year. And he was able to turn to that weapon so often because he was extremely aggressive with his fastball early in the count. He started off 26 of 27 batters with a strike, 15 times showing the heater in the first pitch of an at-bat. With the additional velocity on his fastball still present, it’s been a much more effective pitch for him. The rate of called and swinging strikes earned with his heater is the highest it’s been in his career, up to 30%, and he’s done a much better job of locating it up in the zone.

Because he’s able to generate so much ride with his fastball, batters really have a hard time squaring it up if it’s elevated. That’s led to a healthy whiff rate and a batted ball profile filled with pop-ups. That kind of soft contact is exactly what happened to the Mariners when they put the ball in play on Wednesday. Across 15 balls in play, Means’s expected batting average was just .106 and he allowed just a single hard hit ball in play all afternoon, a 96.5 mph popup off the bat of Ty France. Everything else was weakly hit, including four other pop outs.

This masterpiece performance that came so close to perfection was the exclamation point on a stretch of fantastic pitching from Means. After making the All-Star team in 2019 as the Orioles’ lone representative, he took a significant step back in 2020. His ERA ballooned from 3.60 to 4.53 and his FIP was an ugly 5.60. But much of his struggles last year could be chalked up to poor batted ball luck. He allowed 12 home runs in 10 starts, but he had just 8.3 expected home runs based on his Statcast batted ball profile. That was the largest difference between expected and actual home runs last season.

Going back to mid-September of 2020, he’s put together a stretch of 11 starts where he’s allowed more than two runs just once. With his fastball and changeup playing well off of each other again, he’s elevated himself into a key member of the Orioles rebuilding efforts and the leader of their pitching staff. His performance on Wednesday was a master class in keeping batters off balance and a moment of brilliance for a pitcher coming into his own, perfect or not.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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2 years ago

And right after the game, he was offered to me for Lois Castillo. Talk about trying to sell high in the moment.

2 years ago
Reply to  bluerum29

I’d say take it. MLB isn’t really ready to give someone named Lois a lot of playing time.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

Funny. Luis. I’ve had him for years, hard to get rid of him.

2 years ago
Reply to  bluerum29

Take it IMO

2 years ago
Reply to  degrominantmet

Its sitting there waiting for a decision from me. its not purely straight up, I have to also give a couple rounds in next years draft.

2 years ago
Reply to  bluerum29

I would’ve said take Means even before the no-no.