Supporting your favorite baseball team in the midst of a rebuilding phase can be a grind, especially when the team does so in the unapologetic, scorched-earth fashion the Orioles have over the course of the past three seasons.
It can do funny things to your brain; I recently reminisced about the 2007 summer of Erik Bedard, romanticizing a season during which the Orioles record was *checks notes*…69-93!
Yeah, it’s been a little rough; however, one of the best parts of a rebuild, along with the proliferation of the top prospects fans have been reading about for years, is the emergence of players who exceed even the team’s expectations and solidify themselves as valuable Major League pieces who could potentially stick around for the days when the team is ready to compete again.
For the Orioles, John Means has been one of those guys, and his disappointing 2020 was a cause for concern for people who may have thought that Means was someone who may be making future postseason starts in Camden Yards. While his raw numbers were obviously subpar and the sample size small, there was a lot of encouraging data from his starts last season that suggests that he can write off 2020, and as the Reddit finance bros so eloquently say, I am holding John Means stock with diamond strong hands.
The glaring issue with Means was his home run numbers last year; like so many Orioles hurlers before him, he was absolutely snakebitten by the long ball. His 2.47 HR/9 was nearly double that of his 2019 all-star campaign, and his 21.8% HR/FB ratio placed him 14th among MLB starting pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched in 2020. The good news is that the last number is unsustainable and almost certainly a result of the small sample size. Allowing home runs will always be a heightened risk for Orioles pitchers given the ballpark in which they play, but Means has posted average to above average HR/FB rates throughout his time in professional baseball and should continue to do so moving forward.
Despite the ugly ERA last year, a lot of Means’ peripheral numbers, like his batted ball profile, actually improved! His ground ball percentage increased from 30.9% in 2019 to 43.9% in 2020 (which is another reason to believe his home run numbers were an aberration), his line drive percentage decreased eight percent, and his fly ball percentage fell by nearly six percent. In addition, he managed to lower the amount of hard contact from opposing batters consistently throughout his ten starts.
As you can see in the graph above, the second half of his season stands in stark contrast from the first. After getting tagged in three of his first four starts, Means was able to cut his hard contact to 30.9%, slightly higher than it was in 2019.
Another thing to point out about these final five starts: the Orioles faced top-third offenses in each of those games (NYM twice, TB, TOR, NYY). Each of those four teams ranked in the top 12 in wRC+, a stat that weights each offensive outcome and uses league/park adjustments to calculate offensive performance relative to league average, and that Means was able to succeed against them indicates that rumors of his demise might possibly have been exaggerated.
Back to the contact numbers. What was behind the gradual decrease, you ask? Beyond the otherworldly home run rate and typical small sample shenanigans, Means made a subtle change to his pitch mix.
His changeup, by far his best pitch in 2019, was much less effective in 2020. Through his first five starts, Means was throwing the changeup 33.3% of the time. His second five? 28 percent.
This, coincided with an increase of fastballs (the velocity of which ticked up 2 MPH from previous seasons), helped lead Means to turn his tumultuous start around. His changeup remains a worry, but if he can regain the efficacy of that pitch to match with his improved fastball, he may be able to tap into an even higher level of production.
I get it. The Orioles have been through some rough years, and we try to look for any feel-good story we can to get us through times during which the Win/Loss record is, more simply, a loss record. We’ve had a few fleeting moments with guys like Hanser Alberto and Renato Nunez, only to have them fall victim to a rebuild that can sometimes be void of emotion. You have to be when you’re an executive that’s team-building, but fans don’t.
John Means was one of the guys we latched onto last year, the guy that could be the Orioles version of Dallas Keuchel: a left handed kinda-prospect who emerged into a key cog for a championship-level team. It was easy to be discouraged last season, when young potential pieces such as Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle, and Cedric Mullins were showing flashes of what they could become, but I am here to tell you not to worry.
It’s time to strap yourselves in, buy some John Means stock, and take it TO THE MOON.