Wednesday, March 11, 2020

John Means and His Narrow Path Forward

One of the few bright spots for the 2019 Baltimore Orioles was starting pitcher John Means. The soon-to-be 27-year old lefty finished second in AL RoY voting and posted a 3.60 ERA over 155 innings. Things look great, huh?

Well, maybe. Means also had a FIP of 4.41 and an xFIP of 5.48. The discrepancy between his ERA and FIP (E-F) ranks 8th among MLB starters who pitched 150 innings or more. (All rankings going forward are for MLB SPs with 150 IP or more in 2019.) His K/9 just barely eked over 7 and his BABIP allowed was a likely unsustainable .256. All these peripherals scream that a massive correction is coming for Means in 2020.

Or does it? Instead of looking at these obvious peripherals and assuming Means got very, very lucky in 2019, let's see if we can find what Means did well, how he got those results and if these skills can carry into 2020.

Did Means induce a large number of ground balls? He did not. In fact, quite the opposite. Means is an extreme flyball pitcher with 50% of batted balls hit in the air. (Caleb Smith at 52.2% is the only MLB pitcher with a higher rate in 2019.) That is a bad fit for Camden Yards. How did he succeed?

Means is not your typical early-21st century pitcher as he barely strikes out 7 per 9 IP. If you are going to have that kind of rate, you need to keep the walk rate down and he did. His 2.21 BB/9 ranked 18th among this group which is not dominant control but very good and it can help limit damage if more balls that average are being put in play. (This is different than a guy like the Cardinals Dakota Hudson who sports a similar strikeout rate but walks nearly double Means' rate pointing to more "smoke-and-mirrors" results for him in 2019.)

So Means is stingy with free passes which helps but it's not a crazy-good rate. Let's look at batted balls and how he was able to keep that BABIP so low.

Scrolling through the leader boards at FanGraphs, I do find two categories where Means ranked as elite in 2019. He was in the top 5 in O-Contact% at 73.5% which puts him between crafty veterans like Mike Fiers and Rick Porcello. That means batters were making a high amount of contact of pitches outside the zone and perhaps inducing weak contact.

As far as weak contact, Means was number one in limiting hard hit balls. Number one. His Hard Hit % of 27.8 is just ahead of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom and Stephen Strasbourg.

Over at the Athletic, they looked at combining Hard Hit% and Soft Hit % to measure a pitcher's ability to limit quality contact with their Hard Minus Soft Rate (H-S%) measurement. A description of the stat and its stated purpose:

"Hard Minus Soft is a statistic that compares the number of times a pitcher is hit hard and the number of times that same pitcher induces soft contact. I intend for H-S% to be viewed and used in a similar manner to K-BB%, as it should highlight pitchers who combine the best of the two outcomes."

As you can see in the below screenshot, Means comes in 9th, just behind Stephen Strasbourg and Kenta Maeda and just ahead of Lucan Giolito and Zack Wheeler.

Is this a "sticky" skill? Can John Means continue to (seemingly) induce weak contact by getting batters to strike pitches out of the zone? I can't answer these questions yet but am fascinated to see if he can.

And he'd better. Without some improvement in his underlying talent (his fastball speed ticking up a bit, improving swing-and-miss rates on one of his secondary pitches), this is Means' way forward as an effective MLB starter. Fortunately for Means, even with some regression built in, a pitcher who can  hold an ERA between 4.25-4.50 over 175 innings is still incredibly valuable to this team in 2020.