Heading into the 2020 season, one of the most important questions surrounding the Orioles involved John Means: Is he for real? That, of course, was in reference to his surprising All-Star campaign in 2019 and his ascension to becoming the O’s top starting pitcher.
Things have not gone according to plan. Originally named the team’s Opening Day starter, Means was forced to begin the season on the injured list due to arm fatigue. Means missed just that one start, then returned to face the Yankees at the end of July. He allowed five runs in 2.1 innings. His next start, against the Marlins, went better (one run in 4.2 innings) as he attempted to build up his workload.
Heartbreak ensued: On the night of that start, John Means’ father, Alan, died of pancreatic cancer. A little less than one year earlier, after recently learning of his father’s diagnosis, Means threw seven innings of two-run ball during an emotional homecoming outing against the Royals in Kansas City. After the Marlins’ start this year, Means went on the bereavement list to attend his father’s funeral; afterward, he was transferred to the injured list while undergoing intake testing for COVID-19.
In the three starts since Means returned, he’s allowed nine runs in 12.1 innings against the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Mets. He also allowed six home runs in that span, which matched his strikeout total.
In six starts and 20 innings, Means’ numbers are ghastly: 8.10 ERA, 8.03 FIP, -0.4 fWAR. His strikeout percentage is down from 19% in 2019 to 13.5%. He’s managed to slice his walk percentage from 6% to 4.5%, but he’s already allowed eight home runs. That’s bad enough for a HR/9 of 3.6.
Means’ struggles have been even more frustrating considering he began his season by showcasing increased velocity (honed, naturally, by throwing pitches at a mattress in his garage during the season’s delay). In 2019, Means averaged 91.7 mph with his fastball and 80.9 mph with his changeup. In 2020, those velocities have jumped to 94.3 and 84.8 mph, respectively.
But the increased velocity hasn’t helped, and the new-and-improved John Means has just been new. While understanding that this has all occurred in just 20 innings, the 2020 Statcast numbers aren’t kind to Means, either:
2019: 87.5 EV, 6.8 Barrel%, .295 wOBA, .309 xwOBA, 30.7 Hard Hit %
2020: 89.1 EV, 11.3 Barrel%, .386 wOBA, .357 xwOBA, 42.3 Hard Hit %
Adding velocity is supposed to help! With it, Means is unsurprisingly getting a higher spin rate on all of his offerings. He’s throwing his four pitches (fastball, changeup, slider and curveball) about the same as before, and he still throws either a fastball or a changeup about 80 percent of the time. But those two pitches are getting walloped. Opposing batters have a .396 wOBA off of the four-seamer (.325 in 2019) and a .431 wOBA against the changeup (.272 in 2019). Each of the eight of the home runs Means has allowed has been on a fastball or changeup (four each). And somehow, he’s only struck out one batter using the changeup this season.
After Means’ most recent rocky start, in a 9-4 loss to the Mets, manager Brandon Hyde offered up two of the main culprits for Means: a lack of fastball command and every pitch being “max-effort.” Catcher Pedro Severino echoed Means’ exasperation as well, noting that he’s “never seen him like that exactly” and that there’s “frustration for him and for us too because we know how good he is.”
Regarding max-effort from Means, here is his delivery on an 0-0 fastball to Zack Cozart in early 2019:
And here is an 0-0 fastball in 2020 to Robinson Cano:
Granted, those are just two pitches, but the deliveries look pretty similar and smooth. And while frustrating, fastball command doesn’t appear to be such an obvious issue. Means may not be hitting the exact spots he would like, but his locations with the pitch in 2020 aren’t that much different than 2019. Overall, he isn’t throwing many more pitches that should be crushed (6.2% Meatballs in 2019; 6.5% in 2020), though he may be in the zone too much (about 50%; 46% last year).
More than anything, Means’ struggles with the changeup are the most concerning. Opposing batters are simply teeing off on the pitch, which is supposed to be Means’ calling card. According to pitch value data available on FanGraphs, the changeup value is -3.2 runs (the fastball is at -2.6). Last year, Means’ changeup finished as far and away his best pitch, at 14.3 runs. This year, Means’ only positive pitch is the slider (0.9).
So what does this all mean? Is Means broken, or is he in a rut? Are all the name puns getting to him? In all likelihood, it’s a rough patch, but the 2019 version of Means may not be coming back. Statcast features an expected ERA stat; for Means, his xERA in 2019 was 4.06. In 2020, it’s 5.16. That’s more than a run worse, which is obviously bad, but maybe not as awful as expected considering how underwhelming Means has been. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his ERA land somewhere between the two.
It’s easy for fans to offer solutions such as “go back to not throwing as hard.” Really, they just want what’s best. But Means’ offseason work was a driving factor in his 2019 success, and it must be particularly vexing for that same offseason work to not pay off.
For better or worse, Means seems like a different pitcher now. He somehow found an extra 3 mph on his fastball, and assuming it’s not just a temporary blip, he’s not just going to willingly give that away. Instead, he’ll need to figure out a way to make the new velocity work along with repairing his ailing changeup. Maybe that means moving away from the pitch and mixing in more breaking balls. It might be worth trying.
Regardless, Means is used to dealing with adversity, and once again he appears to be at a crossroads. As he’s shown in the past, the only way out is through hard work. No one said this would be easy.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox