John Means has had a trying start to the season.
He was supposed to be the team’s Opening Day starter last Friday against the Red Sox, but was pulled from the start due to “dead arm,” which pushed back his first start of the year even further than it already had been.
Thursday at Camden Yards against the Yankees, he got the nod.
And in the first inning, Means rocked, fired and threw hard. In fact, he threw harder than he ever had before. A few mistakes, however, turned the night into a disaster on the scoreboard.
Means lasted just 2 1/3 innings, shy of the three to four innings that manager Brandon Hyde set for him. He allowed five first-inning runs in a disappointing and, in a way, promising start to the season.
The Orioles rallied to take the lead in the eighth, but fell, 8-6, after an Aaron Judge home run in the ninth inning.
“Physically, I felt great,” Means said. “I thought my stuff was better than it ever has been, honestly. Just got into a situation in the first. Physically and stuff-wise, feeling really good.”
To say his stuff was better than it ever has been isn’t hyperbolic either.
He threw 23 fastballs, which made up just less than half of his 51 total pitches, and averaged 95.2 mph while reaching 96 mph seven times.
In all of last season, a campaign during which he was an All-Star and the Rookie of The Year runner-up, the highest average his fastball ever reached in a single month was 92.6 mph in June. His fastball averaged nearly three mph faster Thursday.
The hardest pitch he’d ever thrown at the major league level registered at 95.4 mph last April. He threw 11 pitches faster than that against the Yankees on Thursday. Last year, his fastball averaged 91.7 mph. He was nearly four mph faster on Thursday.
“He felt great -- probably felt a little too good,” Hyde remarked. “He was throwing 95, 96, I just think he was anxious to get out there and didn’t have really good command obviously in the first inning. Tough time kind of settling down and a couple hit by pitches that were a little uncharacteristic.”
The first inning got away from Means as back-to-back hit batsmen gave way to a bases loaded situation. Luke Voit made him pay as he launched a changeup over the left field wall which gave the Yankees a 5-0 lead with just one out.
“The couple hit by pitches were a little bit of bad luck, I thought it was a pretty good located fastball that nicked their elbows a couple times,” Means said. “But, honestly, I felt good. I probably made one bad pitch and that was the home run. Other than that, I thought my stuff was good.”
Means’ trick to his increased velocity was a tweak he made at his home while in quarantine.
“Just riding the slope a little bit better,” Means said. “I got in trouble last year kind of falling and pulling myself out of my body with my front side. Kind of staying closed a little bit longer is helping me stay on plane.”
He practiced those changes by throwing baseballs into a mattress in his garage.
“Sometimes it’s better off with that sort of catch play because you’re not really worried about where it’s going but really just focusing on your motion and how your body feels,” Means said. “I think that has a lot to do with it. I made a little tweak, I don’t think it’s major.”
Means’ final line of 2 1/3 innings pitched, two hits, five earned runs, one walk, two strikeouts and a home run allowed wasn’t as flattering as the performance he put forth.
Coming off a dead arm situation, where velocity could’ve been an issue, Means showed his continual progression in increasing his velocity on not only his fastball, but his changeup too. He threw 19 changeups, the fastest of which topped out at 86.1 mph.
It wasn’t the start anyone envisioned, for more reasons than just the outcome.
But there were positive signs from Means on Thursday, and despite the loss, it’s completely reasonable to be optimistic about what this increased velocity means for his future this season, and beyond.
“That showed that he was healthy,” Hyde said. “That velo, we saw that a little bit last couple starts before in Summer Camp, too. He was hitting a lot of 94 and 95s that we didn’t see last year. It just shows he’s a real strong guy that can spin the ball. I’ve always said the breaking balls are going to be the key for him. He’s got the changeup, he’s got a little added velo, to have three, four pitches that’s going to be tough on the league.”
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