Whatever else the Orioles glean from a back-and-forth, rain-interrupted 8-6 loss to the Yankees on Thursday, one thing was clear nearly the moment John Means took the mound for his season debut. His left arm is fine. It’s more than fine. It’s better than ever.
Exhibit A: The 95.1 mph four-seam fastball Means pumped in to Aaron Judge on the left-hander’s fourth pitch of the night, at that point the hardest he’d ever thrown in a Major League game. Exhibit B: The 96 mph heater Judge swung through two pitches later, more than four mph faster than the 91.7 mph that pitch averaged a year ago. Exhibits C, D and E, et al: The 96.5 mph strike to Gary Sánchez later in the frame, and the 15 other times Means eclipsed 94.7 mph, his previous career high. Consider it a spike in velocity rarely seen from any pitcher, never mind one coming off a bout of arm fatigue.
“Physically, I felt great,” Means said. “I thought actually my stuff was better than it ever has been.”
“He probably felt a little too good,” quipped manager Brandon Hyde.
The irony was, for Means, the showcase in increased stuff came in objectively the worst start of his young career. Thanks in large part to shoddy command and Luke Voit’s first-inning grand slam, Means lasted just a career-low 2 1/3 innings in his season debut, surrendering five runs. The problems stemmed from two hit batsmen and a walk Means squeezed into a four-batter span in the first, and the changeups -- which he also threw harder Thursday than ever before -- that Giancarlo Stanton rolled into left for an RBI single and Voit lofted out to left-center two batters later.
The Orioles were able to claw their way back into the game on a pair of Hanser Alberto and Rio Ruiz two-run homers before rain delayed the game for one hour and 34 minutes. Pedro Severino’s go-ahead two-run shot off Jonathan Loaisiga after play resumed also got Means off the hook. But Judge’s three-run blast off Cole Sulser in the ninth allowed New York to escape with its 17th consecutive win at Oriole Park, and its 18th straight over the O’s overall.
Still much of the postgame chatter centered on Means, who credited his uptick in velocity to physical adjustments he made throwing into a mattress during quarantine back home in Kansas. Means then arrived at Summer Camp consistently flashing 94-95 mph with his fastball, before being shut down near the end of camp and missing his Opening Day assignment due to what the team described as a dead arm. He returned after nearly two weeks of rest throwing harder than ever; he’s now added at least eight mph in fastball velocity since his MLB debut in September 2018.
“I had a lot of time to myself [during quarantine],” Means said. “Sometimes you’re better off with that sort of catch-play because you’re not really worried about where it’s going, but you’re focusing on your motion and how your body feels.”
Asked to describe the adjustment in technical terms, Means said he’s focused on “riding the slope a little bit better. I got into trouble last year falling off, pulling my front side out of my body. Staying closed a little bit better is helping me stay on plane.”
“Hopefully next time I get some results from it,” he said.
For the Orioles, that would be a dream, and the first real feather in the cap for their data-driven front office that has worked to get to the cutting edge of pitching development. For Means, it would be the next step in an evolution that’s already seen him go from roster afterthought to frontline pitcher in rapid time. Rounding out the repertoire -- today more fastball juice, tomorrow maybe a second breaking pitch -- might just make him a legitimate ace.
“I think that he showed he was healthy [with] that velo,” Hyde said. “We didn’t see that last year. It just shows he’s a real strong guy who can really spin the ball. I’ve always said the breaking balls are going to be the key for him. He has the changeup. Now he has a little added velo. Now to have three, four pitches, that’s going to be tough on the league.”