A Deep Dive into Baltimore Lefty John Means
Some guys just have the “it” factor coming out of college that shows they’re going to be dominant in the big leagues. Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole both had it at UCLA, and while it took them a bit to find their footings in the big leagues, eventually they got there.
Baltimore Orioles lefty John Means is not that kind of guy.
Means played a year at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas — the alma mater of Adam LaRoche among six other former big leaguers — and was absolutely brilliant before turning his talents to the Big 12 and West Virginia.
The numbers with the Mountaineers were good, but certainly not great — low-3.00s ERA, sub-7.0 K/9 — and vaulted him from the 46th round of the 2011 draft out of high school to the 11th round after his junior year in 2014.
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Baseball America never rated Means among its top 30 Orioles prospects, nor paid him much attention after assessing him as follows out of the draft:
“Means has sustained two years of solid performance and strike-throwing ability in the rotation, making him a candidate to go in the top 10 rounds. He has a solid build at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and his fastball works at 88-91 mph, touching 93, with some downhill plane and armside run. He hides the ball well in his delivery. Means’ top secondary offering is his changeup that shows average potential. His breaking ball will have to improve for him to remain in the rotation, though it shows flashes. He offers pitchability and control, with a career walk rate of 2.6 per nine and a 2.4 strikeout-walk ratio.”
An NL scout who saw Means in college carries a similar view of the 26-year-old lefty.
“I always believe guys can sustain but I’m a glass-half-full guy,” the scout told Baltimore Sports and Life. “He could pitch off his fastball/changeup in college and got strikeouts from the left side. Humans are unique, but I didn’t think he’d be this good for he’d have never lasted as long as he did in the draft.”
However, in a short sample, Means has done far more than was ever expected of him by any impartial observer outside of the Orioles organization.
Through nine appearances — five starts — this season, Means has a 2.48 ERA with 8.0 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and a 45.2 percent groundball rate. Typically those three components add up to a solid pitcher, but in just 32.2 innings it’s worth digging deeper to see what’s at play here.
Can Means be a part of the next strong Orioles rotation?
The first thing I like to check with guys getting a reasonable number of strikeouts is their swinging-strike percentage. The AL average most years for starting pitchers is 10 percent, give or take, and this year it’s up to 10.6 percent. Compare that to an AL average of 8.4 percent K/9 for the average starter, and it’s likely we’d expect Means to be around 10 percent, or right around it.
Means vastly exceeds those expectations at 13.8 percent. Means’ repertoire consists of a low-90s four-seam fastball — 92.0 mph average — mixed with a low-80s changeup (80.2 mph average) with infrequent sliders and curves (combined 15 percent usage, roughly).
The changeup is the pitch to watch, as it has induced a staggering 22.5 percent swinging-strike rate. Now that should be viewed on a separate plane from the AL average of 10.6 percent, since breaking and offspeed pitches are counteracted by fastballs when these are computed, but no matter how it’s sliced 22.5 percent is a strong, strong mark.
Opposing batters are hitting just .155/.190/.328 against the pitch — a .518 OPS that comes out to nine hits, though three of them have left the yard.
By linear pitch-weight measures on Fangraphs, Means has the No. 6 changeup in baseball among pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched this season (plus-5.2 runs above average). Fifteen of Means’ 29 strikeouts this season have come on changeups, and the pitch has also induced a groundball rate of 52.3 percent.
The generally accepted average is about 45 percent — or roughly what Means is doing overall — so he’s on the plus side with the changeup, and with a 20 percent HR/FB rate on the pitch, he’s a likely candidate for positive regression, meaning there could be more growth on the pitch as the season goes along.
It’s not exactly the perfect pitch, but it’s pretty close.
The strikeouts, walks and home runs all check out fairly regularly, but Means gets dinged on his FIP (3.96) for his BABIP (.244), which falls beneath the generally accepted range of about .290-.310 — some places say .280-.320 — without anything in his batted-ball profile to make up for it.
Typically a pitcher who induces lots of fly balls or popups can skate by with a lower-than-average BABIP over the medium- or long-term haul, but someone like Means — a moderate groundball pitcher — is less likely to be able to do so.
However, his popup rate of 5.6 percent is well below league average — usually 10 percent or so, 9.7 percent this season — and could/should see an uptick as the season goes on. That’s another positive sign toward helping him stave off an oncoming regression monster.
Another thing Means does well is limit loud contact. Among pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched, Means is 26th in average exit velocity allowed at 87.4 mph (89.2 mph is the average among those 127 pitches, David Hess is last (93.3 mph).
Means is about average when it comes to launch angle induced (11.3 degrees), but only 34.5 percent of batted balls against him have been 95 mph or higher (24th, ahead of Stephen Strasburg).
Means’ launch angle is a bit more troubling when placed in the context of the percentage of batted balls between 10 and 30 degrees — 31 percent against a league-average mark of 30.1 percent — but when he’s inducing weak contact, those are typically routine fly balls his outfielders can chase down.
We’re far from this being a settled science, but I do think there’s evidence Means can be better than his 3.96 FIP forecasts — and that’s a pretty damn good pitcher.
You’ve got a good one, Baltimore.
Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for 105 The Ticket's Cold Omaha website as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. He also contributes to FanGraphs / RotoGraphs.