Means expands repertoire, Villar makes history

September 12th, 2019

BALTIMORE -- Three full innings before ’s record-setting home run led the Orioles to their 7-3 win over the Dodgers on Wednesday night, John Means greeted Cody Bellinger with an 84.1-mph slider. Three pitches later, Means offered another at 83.4 mph, which the front-runner for the National League MVP Award fouled off to draw the count even. Means’ next pitch was another slider, this one at 84.1 mph. Bellinger swung through for strike three.

One batter later, Means buried a breaking ball behind home plate to strike out Enrique Hernandez. At 79.5 mph, it was harder than Means’ average curve, but slower than his slider, with more depth and sweeping action. Before Wednesday, Means had never thrown a pitch with those characteristics. Then, for 6 1/3 innings, it proved integral in what, given the opponent, qualified as one of the finer outings of Means’ breakout rookie year.

“I’m always working to try to get better, trying to get that full repertoire of pitches,” Means said. “My mentality is, I’m never satisfied. I always have something that I’m working on, always something I want to get better at.”

Currently, Means says, that’s mainly “not giving up a homer every game.”

But he’s also clearly expanding his horizons, past his spring worries about belonging in the big leagues, past the fastball-changeup guy he was during his All-Star first half, toward 2020 and sustainability.

Enter this new pitch, which Means calls a curve but said functions like “more of a slurve.” He threw 12 of them on Wednesday, exclusively to right-handed batters, in tandem with an above-average 17 sliders, which he used mainly against lefties. The result was bundles of soft outs, Means largely holding the NL’s top offensive unit in check two and a half turns through.

“He really gave us the start we needed,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “When you’re facing Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, you need more than just a four-seamer and a changeup. You need something that goes away from it, something with bite, something that goes down. He had that tonight. The swings that Bellinger took -- it was not a comfortable at-bat. That was great to see.”

That the Dodgers scored two of their three runs on hung changeups in the sixth -- one of them on A.J. Pollock’s go-ahead homer -- only accentuated what little answer they had for Means’ array of sliders and slurves, which perhaps serves as a sign of the Orioles’ new organizational pitching development philosophies popping up in the Majors.

Means said his slurve “is what the new-age thinking kind of looks for.”

To his point, the use of hybrid breaking balls is skyrocketing across MLB this season, notably on such analytically driven teams as the Astros and Rays. On Wednesday, half of Means’ six strikeouts came on the pitch. He retired 14 of 15 at one point and held Los Angeles' three through eight hitters to 1-for-18.

“It was a great performance against a good club,” Hyde said. “John Means, for me, is a competitor. I think he’s improving.”

Consider that the takeaway from a game Baltimore parlayed into a victory on Villar’s three-run tater in the seventh. The 443-foot shot off Caleb Ferguson was the 6,106th homer in the Majors in 2019, a single-season record.

“I feel unbelievable,” Villar said upon hearing his bat would be headed to Cooperstown to be catalogued in the Hall of Fame. “I feel so excited. I’m not going to sleep tonight!”

The Orioles also benefited from the first three-hit game of ’ career, two RBIs from and a two-run homer in the eighth from . Means was long gone by then, but not before further padding the surprise case for the American League Rookie of the Year Award he’s been compiling since March.

Though Means’ hopes of claiming the award seem to fade with every Yordan Alvarez homer, he’s sure kept it interesting by pitching to a 2.53 ERA over his past five starts. Overall, the 26-year-old is 10-10 with a 3.47 ERA in 28 games (24 starts), and leads all qualified AL rookie pitchers in wins, ERA and WAR. 

“With the strong first half that I had, it was my goal to not have it teeter off toward the end, to stay strong, keep attacking guys,” Means said. “After the break, it kind of started to teeter. To come back and feel like I’m back in a normal self, it feels pretty good.”