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How Opening Day starter John Means can take next step as Orioles’ ace

Three years ago, John Means was a non-prospect, bound for Double-A Bowie for a third straight season and contemplating retirement as he wondered whether he could fit into the Orioles’ future plans.

All the 27-year-old left-hander has done since is make his major league debut, represent Baltimore in the All-Star game, finish second in American League Rookie of the Year voting and get named the Orioles’ Opening Day starter for the second straight season.

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A tired arm prevented him from following through on last year’s announcement, the first hurdle in a season of challenges, but he bounced back with four dominant starts in September to leave himself and the Orioles leadership assured of his place atop the team’s rotation.

“Both years, just being named the Opening Day starter, it feels like such a blessing,” Means said Saturday. “It’s just so humbling. I take every day as it comes, and it’s such a cool experience that I will hopefully make this time around. It’s unbelievable.

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“If you would’ve told me this three years ago, I would’ve told you you’re crazy.”

In those three years, Means has risen from what manager Brandon Hyde called Friday “an organizational-type player” to the Orioles’ No. 1 starter. He looks back on that time with some sense of not only motivation but also appreciation, knowing the gaze of the fan base wasn’t on him then like it will be April 1 at Fenway Park.

“You’re not the face,” Means said. “You’re not getting interviewed from Low A all the way to the big leagues like some of these high prospects do, so I was able to kind of stay in the shadows a little bit and develop, really focus on myself and not have to worry about the outside noise. I think that really prepared me for this time and, now that I am in the spotlight, to be able to handle it.”

Means will throw the Orioles’ first pitch of the 2021 season in less than two weeks, hoping to build on how he finished 2020. Both he and Hyde recognize there are aspects of his game he can improve to do just that.

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Putting hitters away

There were two notable areas in which Means ranked second among starting pitchers in 2020: increase in fastball velocity from 2019 and percentage of two-strike pitches that were fouled off.

Of the 111 pitchers who threw at least 200 pitches with two strikes last season, only Minnesota’s Randy Dobnak had a greater percentage of his become foul balls than Means did, with nearly 30% of Means’ two-strike offerings getting spoiled, according to MLB’s Statcast data. That rate was even worse in Means’ first six starts, outings in which he posted an 8.10 ERA. He completed five innings only once while more than a third of his two-strike pitches were fouled off.

“I think the one area that John would love to improve on is to put hitters away when he gets to two strikes,” Hyde said. “There’s just been quite a few games in his short career so far that it’s the fifth inning and he’s got a high pitch count, just because of all the foul balls that he gets. Guys are able to stay alive in the at-bat against him, and I know that’s one area that he wants to improve on, to be able to put guys away when he has the advantage counts.”

In his final four starts of 2020, Means reduced that percentage to 27.2%. He worked 23 ⅔ innings in that span, striking out 30 and posting a 1.52 ERA.

“Honestly, it comes down to execution,” Means said. “I’m good at getting to two strikes, but it’s just putting guys away, and it’s something I thought the last couple games of the year, I felt like I was doing well. It was really just trying to stay attacking, but it’s that put away pitch, that last pitch that you need that swing and miss that I’ve got to take care of and just limit the foul balls. I think most of the year last year, I was leaving a lot of balls over the middle of the plate, and that was part of the reason. Just with two strikes, not going right down the middle, but working the edges and just executing.”

Featuring his curveball

Since permanently arriving in the majors, Means’ signature pitch has been his changeup, one that baffled the New York Yankees in his first outing of 2019 and remained a featured part of his repertoire as he posted a 2.50 ERA in the first half of that season.

But in Means’ final four starts of 2020, it was his curveball that was responsible for finishing off the most strikeouts among his off-speed pitches. The five strikeouts he got with his curveball in those four appearances accounted for half of the strikeouts that pitch has generated in his career.

In 2019, almost 80% of Means’ pitches were his four-seam fastball or changeup, among the highest percentages in baseball, while he threw his curveball only 6.2% of the time, per Statcast. But he used his curveball for 16.2% of his pitches in his strong four-start finish to 2020, almost double its usage from his first six starts.

“The way the curveball came on last year, it completely changed the game,” Means said. “Especially in today’s game, with how good all these hitters are, you can’t just have two pitches, like I did in basically 2019. You’ve got to be able mix it up, keep them on their toes. It’s going to be part of it. If you don’t have a breaking pitch, it’s going to be hard to pitch in this league, so having that come along has been big for me.”

In Means’ 10 career starts in which he has used his curveball most frequently, he has a 3.00 ERA with 56 strikeouts over 57 innings. Outside of those outings, he’s had a 4.30 ERA as a starter while averaging 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

Working deeper into games

Even as Means thrived in completing the 2020 campaign, he never pitched into the seventh inning.

That might’ve been the result of all he dealt with as the season began; in addition to the arm problem, he spent a week away from the team after his father, Alan, died of pancreatic cancer. Hyde was careful in building Means’ stamina back up, and he didn’t find his form until that final stretch.

After topping out at 81 pitches in his first six starts, he threw at least 96 pitches in each of those last four starts but never reached 100. In his rookie season, he threw 90-plus pitches while lasting five or fewer innings 10 times.

Means quipped after an outing in Tampa Bay his rookie season that he had gotten the moniker “five-and-dive” from teammates for being unable to last more than that many innings. He worked deeper than that in each of his September starts last year, and he wants to show he can be even better.

“Just consistency, going every five days and being the same pitcher over and over and over again that I know I can be,” Means said. “That’s the name of the game. It’s part of growing up in this game and becoming an older guy in the clubhouse, like I am in this clubhouse. You’ve just got to be more consistent, and that’s going to be the goal this year.”

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