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Baltimore Orioles

Orioles’ John Means sees 200-inning benchmark as next frontier in climb to ace status

SARASOTA, Fla. — John Means pitched one of Major League Baseball’s nine no-hitters last season. In 2022, he’s out to join a club that was even more exclusive.

I want to be able to throw 200 innings this year,” the Orioles left-hander said. “I want to get the innings as high as I possibly can.”

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Including postseason innings, only seven pitchers crossed that threshold in 2021, and fewer might do so this year with starters unlikely to be stretched out fully when the regular season begins early next month. Means, 28, wants to be among them.

Through the first two months of 2021, Means averaged more than six innings per game in his 11 starts, one of them his no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners that marked Baltimore’s first such solo performance in more than 50 years. But he recorded only two outs in his first start of June, suffering a strain in his left shoulder that cost him most of the next two months and spoiled any shot at pitching 200 innings.

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Means also dealt with shoulder problems in his rookie season of 2019, when he was an All-Star and finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting. He ended that year, which he began in Baltimore’s bullpen after narrowly breaking camp with the team, at 155 innings. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Means was announced as Baltimore’s Opening Day starter but instead opened the year on the injured list with arm fatigue. He worked 146 2/3 frames in 2021, a total that led the pitching-starved Orioles but didn’t crack the top 60 in the majors.

“That’s something that has always been a weak point for me,” Means said. “I just want to stay healthy. I want to be on the field for a whole season.”

Means spent much of this offseason in Arlington, Texas, at Dr. Keith Meister’s physical therapy facility, building strength in the shoulder with a greater focus on stability to avoid a future flare-up. His lease down there was up in mid-February — when pitchers and catchers were originally scheduled to report to spring training — so his workouts during the final weeks of Major League Baseball’s lockout came at the P3 Premier Pitching & Performance facility in St. Louis where he trained before his breakout in 2019.

The hope is to carry that work over into a season where he’s not only healthy enough to make 30-plus starts for the first time in his career but also pitch deep enough into those games that he crosses the 200-inning benchmark.

“I feel like I definitely could do it,” Means said. “I was on pace for it last year until I went on the IL, and so that was what was so frustrating last year. I feel like I can do it, especially with my style of pitching. I do tend to go deeper in games when I’m on, so I think I’m capable of doing it.”

Means also has games where he has trouble putting batters away. In Saturday’s exhibition start against the Detroit Tigers, Means needed 55 pitches to complete three innings, with nine of his two-strike offerings fouled off. Improving in that area was an offseason focus, as more pitches fouled off means a higher pitch count and thus fewer innings.

Particularly, Means worked on his off-speed pitches starting in the zone and then breaking out of it, prompting a hitter to chase and have trouble making contact. He studied video of his pitches, particularly his signature changeup, trying to find cues that showed when the offering was its most deceptive.

“I’m really good at getting to two strikes,” Means said. “It’s just the putting away guys that sometimes I have an issue with, and some of that’s mental of just trusting it to be strike-to-ball instead of trying to force it to be. There’s a lot of different little aspects that go into that, but I think it just comes with development and just comes with learning and trying to constantly work at that. It’s trying to get those strike-to-balls consistently, instead of just strike-to-strikes where they can get bat on it and foul it off.”

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Despite having only three seasons in the majors, Means outpaces most pitchers on the Orioles’ roster in experience and, given his success, has become someone for others to look up to. After pitching behind Means in Saturday’s game, 11-year veteran Jordan Lyles said, “I’ve got a lot to learn from him.”

Younger pitchers feel the same way. Grayson Rodriguez, baseball’s top pitching prospect, said he’s been watching Means this spring to learn “how to be a big leaguer.”

“I was joking with him as we were walking to the dugout about having to pull me around on a leash,” said Rodriguez, who was reassigned to minor league camp Sunday. “It’s been big, being able to ask him questions, whether it be out on the field playing catch during warmups or in a bullpen or something. It’s been beneficial to me this spring, just kind of seeing how he goes about every day.”

In a season during which the Orioles’ rotation is filled with uncertainty behind Means and Lyles, Means reaching 200 innings couldn’t come at a better time. But his mindset entering this year might be just as valuable as the shape of his shoulder.

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Perhaps no top starter features a more difficult path to 200 innings than Means, given who he will likely face in many of his starts: the other four teams in the American League East. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays all won at least 91 games in 2021 and are expected to contend again. Excluding the start where he was injured, Means averaged more than a full inning less per start in 10 outings against divisional opponents than he did in 15 opposite non-AL East teams.

“This is the ultimate test, playing for this team in this division,” Means said. “It’s honestly pretty freakin’ cool that we get to do this. This is what you dream of. You dream of playing the Yankees, the Red Sox, the type of hitters that are in this division, and it’s cool that you can test yourself to this level. I mean, not many guys can do that.

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“You have to just be consistent mentally, and especially in this division, it’s very, very hard to do here, but it’s something that if you can do it here, it’ll help you everywhere.”

Rays@Orioles

Wednesday, 1:05 p.m.

Sarasota, Florida

TV: MASN


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