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Oriole of the Day: John Means showed ace potential with no-hitter, dominant opening stretch

With MLB owners continuing to lock out the players as the two sides slowly work toward a new collective bargaining agreement, Orioles officials are barred from specifically discussing players on the team’s 40-man roster.

The Baltimore Sun, of course, faces no such stipulations. Throughout the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at each Oriole, examining their 2021 seasons and what’s ahead for them in 2022, assuming the league and the players’ union eventually come together.

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Naturally, the series led off with center fielder Cedric Mullins, who led the Orioles in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement. It continues with left-hander John Means, who opened 2021 showing his ace potential in a dominant stretch that included a no-hitter before a shoulder injury slowed him down.

Quick hits

2022 Opening Day age: 28

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2021 stats: 3.62 ERA, 146 2/3 innings, 134 strikeouts, 1.030 WHIP, 22.7 K%, 4.4 BB%, 2.5 fWAR

Under team control through: 2024

2021 in review

Number to know: Four. That’s about how many outs per start more Means averaged compared to all of Baltimore’s other starters. Among his 26 starts, Means went at least five innings 21 times, or more than the next two starters combined. He had 14 of Baltimore’s 34 six-inning appearances and completed seven innings six times. All other Orioles combined for one such outing.

What was good: Through the season’s first two months, Means was one of the best starters in baseball, ranking in the top 10 in innings, ERA and WHIP. Even when he did allow runners to reach base, he was particularly excellent at keeping them there; his 98.6 left-on-base percentage was by far the highest among qualified starters. Although that stat does somewhat measure luck and overperformance, four other members of the top seven at that time have won Cy Young Awards.

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What wasn’t: Means exited his first start of June with tightness in his pitching shoulder, missed the next six weeks and wasn’t the same pitcher when he returned. After allowing at least four runs only once in his first dozen starts, he did so in four of his first six off the injured list. Although he had a bit of a home run problem early in the season, it multiplied down the stretch. In the 11 starts before the injury, Means allowed 11 home runs, only two with a runner on base. In his 14 starts off the IL, he gave up 17 homers, 10 with at least one runner on. Of pitchers who worked at least as many innings as Means did, he allowed the fourth-most home runs per inning.

Through the season’s first two months, Orioles left-hander John Means was one of the best starters in baseball, ranking in the top 10 in innings, ERA and WHIP.
Through the season’s first two months, Orioles left-hander John Means was one of the best starters in baseball, ranking in the top 10 in innings, ERA and WHIP. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Looking ahead to 2022

Likely 2022 role: Opening Day starting pitcher.

What’s projected: Given Means’ propensity to serve up home runs and the fact he’s not a high-strikeout pitcher, predictive metrics such as FIP and xERA suggest Means overperformed in 2021. Projections from Steamer and ZiPS, then, see him taking a step back in 2022, with both systems seeing him finishing the year with a mid-4.00 ERA. Means has missed time with an arm injury each of the past three seasons, so neither system projects him to make 30 starts, though Steamer sees a likely outcome of him reaching a career high in innings. Despite these expectations, Means is still projected to be Baltimore’s most valuable pitcher in 2022, a role he’s held each of the past two full seasons.

A step forward: In his no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners, Means’ signature changeup produced 14 swings-and-misses, a career high for that offering. The pitch induced at least five whiffs in all but one of his first nine starts, but he crossed that threshold only four times across his final 17 outings. He frequently bemoaned his changeup after starts, forced to instead rely on his breaking balls more often. Means entered the season knowing he couldn’t depend so heavily on his fastball-changeup combo; about 75% of his pitches in 2019 and 2020 were one of those two, the fourth-highest rate of any major league starter who threw at least 1,000 pitches in that span. He didn’t deviate from that mark much in 2021, but his curveball became a much more prominent part of his repertoire, largely because his changeup wasn’t as effective as he wanted. If Means can get three of those pitches working at the same time in 2022, he’ll likely look more like the pitcher he did in the first half of last season than the second.

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