What makes Means so interesting for 2021

January 8th, 2021

John Means wasn't a high Draft pick (11th round in 2014), and he wasn't a highly regarded prospect (No. 29 in the Orioles' system in 2017), so when he shockingly made the All-Star team as a rookie in '19, it was easy to write it off as a fluke. Someone had to be selected from a 108-loss team, right?

So when Means followed up that 3.60 ERA in 2019 with a much higher 4.53 mark in '20, it was also easy to reflect back on his rookie year and say: Fluke confirmed. And, to be honest, maybe that's true. We're not going to convince you today that he's got multiple All-Star appearances in his future, or that he's starting Game 1 the next time Baltimore is in the playoffs. But there's 4.53 ERA seasons that are completely uninteresting, and then there's those that have a surprising amount of intrigue behind them.

Means, we think, is the latter, because while his ERA shot up, his strikeout rate increased, his walk rate decreased, and almost no one gained more velocity. No one gave up flukier home runs. Almost no one had a more up-and-down season, on the field as well as off.

All this is worth knowing what his 2020 season actually was, because ...

1. Because some of the home runs he allowed were hilarious.

Means allowed 12 homers, giving up at least one in nine of his 10 starts. (The only game he didn't allow a homer wasn't exactly a success, as he didn't make it out of the first inning in an August start against Washington.)

Now, Means is a fly-ball pitcher without elite strikeout rates in a power-happy era, so that's going to happen. That said, three of the 12, or 25% of the home runs he did give up -- leading to six of the 22 earned runs he allowed -- were such barely-gone wall-scrapers that we feel compelled to show them to you to show how they inflated his ERA.

For each one, we can use Statcast to show how many other ballparks the same ball would have been out of, accounting for differences in wall height and distance (though not environmental effects). For example, this bomb Means allowed to Pete Alonso would have gone out of all 30 parks; this one by Willy Adames would have left everywhere other than Detroit. They were earned, fully.

But these three ...

Sept. 13, Tyler Wade
Out at: 1 park (Yankee Stadium)

This first one is about the Yankee Stadium-iest short porch ball you can conjure up, in that Wade hits a low line drive at just 94.4 mph of exit velocity all of 340 projected feet. It would have been out absolutely nowhere else in baseball other than here; it's usually not even a hit, much less a home run, as this combination of exit velocity and launch angle comes out to an expected batting average of just .190. Eighty percent of the time, this is an out. In Camden Yards, it's a double off the right-field wall. In Yankee Stadium, it was a home run -- and barely at that, since it scraped the top of the fence.

Pay close attention to the look on Means' face afterwards, as it tells the entire story.

Sept. 8, Jake Marisnick
Out at: 2 parks (Citi Field, Wrigley Field)

While Citi Field has a rightly-earned reputation as a pitcher's park, it also has the shortest non-Fenway left field power alley in baseball, and so a ball that was "hit off the end of the bat," as the Mets broadcast put it, managed to float over the wall in just the right place. In Baltimore, this one lands on the warning track. As you can see, this wouldn't even have been a homer in Queens a few years ago, before the Mets pulled the fences in.

July 30, Luke Voit
Out at: 7 parks

This one is the killer, not because it was such an improbable ball to leave the yard -- while seven parks is less than a quarter of baseball, it's not nothing, either -- but because it came with three men on base, tagging Means with four earned runs, or nearly 20% of his season total.

That's not to say it would have been an out and not a base hit otherwise; that's not to say that Means didn't deserve it after hitting two and walking another before this. It's just to say that in most stadiums in baseball -- including each of the other four stadiums in the American League East -- this isn't a grand slam.

Means isn't alone in this sort of thing. Pitchers give up non-crushed homers all the time. But if we can can put a number for each fly ball on how many ballparks it might have gone out of, then we can make a leaderboard. Means allowed 12 homers, but looking at the actual trajectories of those batted balls and giving a 1/30 credit for the Wade ball, a 7/30 credit for the Voit ball and so on, his "expected" home run mark was 8.2. That's a gap of nearly four homers -- we just showed three of the weakest -- and that is the largest in baseball.

Largest gap between HR allowed and "expected" HR
+3.8 HR (Means, 12 HR vs. 8.2 xHR) <---
+3.1 HR (Trevor Gott, 7 HR vs. 3.9 xHR)
+2.9 HR (J.A. Happ, 10 HR vs. 7.1 xHR)
+2.9 HR (Christian Javier, 12 HR vs. 9.1 xHR)

You can see how ballpark-dependent this might be, because Happ and Javier both play in parks with very short lines. Now, does that sort of thing even out year over year? In 2019, Means allowed 23 homers, and was expected to allow ... 23 homers. Seattle's Yusei Kikuchi, for example, allowed 36 homers in 2019, 6.5 more than his "expected" 29.5, and then nailed his expected mark exactly in '20. We don't have enough info to say yet, but we know that Means got dinged a little more than anyone else in 2020.

2. Because almost no one added more velocity

Means got into one game in 2018, and he threw his fastball a mere 90.1 mph.

In 2019, it was better, up to 91.7 mph.

In his first outing of 2020, it was, somehow, touching 96.5 mph as he was blowing a high fastball past Gary Sánchez, before eventually settling in at 93.8 mph on the year. That's the eighth-best velocity from a lefty starter among those who threw 100 fastballs. Just look at how that looks, plotted out on a game-by-game basis, and don't miss that small 2018 dot on the bottom left.

Ironically, Means had actually missed his Opening Day start due to a bout with arm fatigue. But if we look at the largest year-to-year velocity increases from 2019 to '20, only two names appear higher.

Biggest fastball velocity increases, 2019-20
+2.9 mph, Félix Peña
+2.6 mph, Drew Smyly
+2.1 mph, Means <---
+2.1 mph, Paul Fry
+2.0 mph, Daniel Norris

“Physically, I felt great,” Means said on Opening Day, despite getting hit hard by the Yankees. “I thought actually my stuff was better than it ever has been.”

Means is probably the only one on that list who credited his additional heat to throwing endlessly into a mattress back home in Kansas.

3. Because it got a lot better as the year went on

Means, as we noted, missed his Opening Day start due to a "dead arm," then he got lit up by the Yankees in the Voit game, allowing five earned runs in 2 1/3 innings. He was decent five days later -- one run allowed in 4 2/3 innings against Miami -- but then missed the next two weeks traveling to be with his family after his father passed away, which required additional quarantine protocol time upon his return. When he came back, he didn't make it out of the first inning against Washington. Though he was better the next few times out, by the end of August, he had an 8.59 ERA, having not once made it out of the fifth inning, and when he allowed four runs to the Mets on Sept. 2, it seemed like it was a lost season.

(“I was concerned after my first start,” Means said after the Mets game. “I don’t like losing. I don’t like getting hit, and that’s what’s happening. I’m just trying the best I can to get back to feeling good and feeling right, and I’m confident I can get there.”)

Now, look at how his final four starts went:

9/8 @ Mets -- 1 ER in 6 IP (5/1 K/BB)
9/13 @ Yankees -- 1 ER in 6 IP (4/1 K/BB)
9/20 vs. Rays -- 1 ER in 5.2 IP (12/0 K/BB)
9/26 @ Blue Jays -- 1 ER in 6 IP (9/1 K/BB)

That's four straight one-run outings against good offenses, with a 30/3 K/BB rate, and with carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning of the Toronto game. Unquestionably, these are small September samples, but clearly something changed. What was it? Clearly the arm discomfort and the loss of his father would seem to be reasonable explanations for the very slow start, but maybe there's more to it.

“It started with mechanics," Means told Todd Karpovich of Press Box Online. "Being able to ride the back leg a little better down the slope and a just whole lot of different mechanical changes. Toward the end of the year, it was a mentality change. I [had been] kind of pitching pissed off for a lack of a better term."

4. Because ERA doesn't always tell you the entire story

In a 10-start season, ERA is subject to large fluctuations. For example, if you take out just the very first start against the Yankees, Means had a 3.70 ERA. If you take away a few earned runs because of the cheap homers, he gets below 4.00. That's not how life works -- those runs scored, and they count -- but you get the idea.

That's why it's sometimes more interesting to look at ERA estimators, which look at strikeouts, walks, quality of contact and other factors to try to strip out the effects of defense, ballpark, or bad batted ball luck. In Means's case, despite the jump in ERA, he increased his strikeout rate (from 19% to 24%) and lowered his walk rate (from 6% to 4%), which are strong signs.

One of those estimators is Statcast's xERA, which cares more about the fact that Means got Wade to hit a medium-deep fly ball than that it actually went over a short wall. So while the back of Means's baseball card will always say 4.53, his xERA says 3.09, which is the same as Gerrit Cole and Sixto Sánchez.

(How, even? He struck out more than Sánchez and walked fewer than either, while allowing much less hard contact than Cole.)

Conversely, fellow Baltimore starter Alex Cobb had a 4.30 ERA, but a 6.23 xERA, due to poor strikeout rates and terrible hard-hit rates.

Now, there's surprisingly broad disagreement on this point. FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) gives Means a 5.60 mark, because it looks only at strikeouts, walks and home runs, thus treating all home runs exactly the same and ignoring non-home run contact. Baseball Prospectus has an estimator that attempts to account for nearly everything, and that gives him a 4.25. Yet another, SIERA, checks in with a 3.93.

There's not one right answer here, obviously. We'll admit that the 3.09 feels a little aggressive for a pitcher who wasn't all that good until the final few weeks of the season. But it does show that for Means, and for any pitcher in a short season, ERA isn't the entire story. It never is.

So what does all this mean for 2021 and beyond? Maybe nothing, other than the fact that Means' seeming step back wasn't quite the problem that it may have looked like, given what he was dealing with off the field, and the relatively positive signs we saw on the field.

“I wish there were 100 games left,” Means said at the end of the season. “I just felt like me. It’s been a nice breath of fresh air.”

If the Orioles are ever going to get back to contention, some of it has to come from internal improvements, not external additions. If Means is to be part of that future, what he can show over 2021 will have a lot to say about it.