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No starting pitcher has added more heat to their fastball this season than Orioles’ John Means

No starting pitcher has added more heat to their fastball this season than Orioles’ John Means

John Means’ 2020 season is only two starts in, but he’s already shown signs of improving after placing second in AL Rookie of the Year voting last year.

According to The Athletic’s Eno Sarris, Means has added 3.6 mph to his fastball this season, the largest increase of any starting pitcher in the majors. Though Sarris posted those numbers prior to Means’ start against the Miami Marlins on Tuesday, the Orioles’ left-hander hovered between 92.7 and 95.8 mph while allowing one run over four and a third innings.

Last season, Means averaged 92.2 mph on his four-seamer but that number jumped to 95.7 mph following his first start. Though that could be attributed to him starting the season fresh, it’s worth noting that the fastest pitch he threw all last season was 95.4 mph and he averaged a little over 92 mph over the first month of 2019.

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The early results have been a mixed bag for Means. He was lit up by the New York Yankees in his first start then posted a stellar stat line against Miami before was pulled in the fifth to keep his arm fresh after dealing with arm fatigue last month. Means retired 13 batters in a row before Francisco Cervelli hit a solo homer to end his night.

If the Orioles’ hot start is a sign of things to come, then Means be leaned upon to play a key role as the team’s top arm in the rotation. The 7.71 ERA may be unsightly, but the increased velocity has to have the Orioles feeling good about how he’ll perform moving forward.

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John Means shows improved stuff, but suffers familiar result in loss to Yankees

John Means shows improved stuff, but suffers familiar result in loss to Yankees

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.

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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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Orioles' Tommy Milone to make Opening Day start in place of John Means

Orioles' Tommy Milone to make Opening Day start in place of John Means

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde knows Tommy Milone has never made an Opening Day start before. But he asked him if he had anyways. 

Milone smiled, curious where Hyde was headed with the conversation, before Hyde broke the news that the 33-year-old left-hander will make the Opening Day start against the Red Sox on Friday. 

Milone will replace John Means, who is dealing with arm fatigue, as the team’s first starter of the season.

“He had a big smile on his face, kind of like, ‘Where am I going with this?’” Hyde said. “It’s great to give people great news. He’s gonna, I’m sure he’s already done it, but call home to let his friends and family know he’s an Opening Day starter. That’s a big deal.”

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Milone, who signed a minor league deal with the team in February, is on his seventh different major league team. He played in 23 games last year, but made just six starts as a member of the Mariners. He posted a 4.76 ERA with a 1.119 WHIP and a 4-10 record. 

A big reason for Milone’s start on Friday is that the Orioles will be able to keep the rest of their rotation in order ahead of the team’s 60-game sprint of a season. 

“I didn’t want to bring anybody back short,” Hyde explained. “In this kind of unusual space and time where we only had a short time to get these guys ready — they’ve done an amazing job to get ready — we just didn’t want to take the chance of bringing somebody back on short rest. Tommy was just one day away, so he’s going to have five extra days.” 

The elephant in the room around the excitement of Milone’s start, however, is the removal of Means from his first ever Opening Day start. 

The Orioles have rested Means for the last few days due to what Hyde said was “dead arm,” something that occurred for Means last year around this time. 

Last season, Means was Baltimore’s lone All-Star representative. He threw 155 innings in 31 games, 27 of which were starts, and posted a 3.60 ERA with a 1.135 WHIP and a 4.41 FIP.

“I wouldn’t consider John Means as an injury, I think it’s more of a little bit of fatigue that he kind of experienced last year at this time,” Hyde said. “So we’re just being cautious with him. He played catch today. He threw the ball well, he felt great, so it’s not going to be long before you see him on the mound. He’ll miss a few days and be back out there.”

Now, the focus will be on Milone as he prepares to make the first Opening Day start of his career. For someone as well traveled as he’s been in his career, it certainly won’t be a night he’ll forget.

“It’s a big deal for these guys, somebody that’s had a pretty long career up until this point, been with quite a few clubs, seen a lot of different things,” Hyde said. “Has hung in there, has grinded. He’s had some good years, he’s had some tough years. To make an Opening Day start, that’s a special achievement for somebody and he’s not taking that lightly.”

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