By the time the 2020 season ended, John Means said he felt the best he's ever felt, on the mound at least. That checks out. Means was a machine down the stretch last September, pitching to a 1.52 ERA over his final four starts. He struck out 30 in 23 2/3 innings, walking just three.
In his final start, Means took a no-hitter into the sixth … and lost. Nonetheless, it was a dominant finish to what was a disjointed season for the left-hander, who pitched around the coronavirus shutdown, nagging injuries and the death of his father. Now, the 2019 All-Star is the Orioles' unquestioned ace. He's looking to take the next step.
"I was really excited to finish last year the way I did," Means said Wednesday, after Orioles pitchers and catchers completed their first Spring Training workout. "I'm really excited to keep on with that momentum."
To that end, Means trained this past offseason at P3 Premier Pitching and Performance in St. Louis, where he first made adjustments two winters ago that helped propel him from roster afterthought to Orioles ace almost overnight.
He returned from last year's shutdown coupling those with increased velocity, but he had erratic results before finding his groove down the stretch in September. After his final start of the season, Means said he "wish there were 100 games left."
Now there are 162 on the horizon, and at least 918 extra innings for O's pitchers to cover compared to 2020. Nothing would help achieve that more than a durable, dependable ace, which they believe Means could be.
"I think John had a great offseason," O's manager Brandon Hyde said. "He's come to camp ready. I saw him throw today and he looks fantastic. I think that he's going to be the John Means you saw during his last handful of starts and who he was in 2019. I think that he was just overamped coming into last year, and was just trying a little too hard and doing some things that that he hadn't done before. And I think he recognized that and got back to the pitcher that he knows he is. I think you'll see that this year."
Asked about managing his workload following the shortened 2020 season, Means said he expects to build up normally with an eye toward "trying to go six, seven innings every time out." Even despite missing time on the injured and bereavement list, Means led all Orioles pitchers with 43 2/3 innings in 2020. He threw 155 in '19, a decrease of more than 300 percent.
The O's are already brainstorming creative ways for Means and others to bridge that gap; using six-man rotations, openers and piggybacking are all possibilities. But what Means does at the top of the rotation likely will affect everything else.
"I look at is as there being less wear and tear on my arm," Means said. "I look at it as a positive, like I have more time to recover. But honestly, I think it's been voiced here that they want guys to make sure they feel good. … I think that we're going to be a little bit more cautious. But at the end of the day, we're going to go out there and we're going to try and compete."