John Means is the Orioles rotation X-Factor in 2024

With all of the upside and potential dominance in the rotation, many seem to forget that John Means has ace potential and can bolster the O's rotation to be the best in baseball if he can return to form.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles / G Fiume/GettyImages

In a matter of 48 hours, the entire dynamic and attitude surrounding the Baltimore Orioles and their offseason shifted. In the evening hours of January 30th, it was announced that John Angelos sold his majority stake in the team to a private equity firm led by David Rubenstein.

Two days later, O's fans found out that they made one of the biggest trades in recent franchise history when they acquired Corbin Burnes from the Brewers. The acquisition of Burnes immediately put the Orioles on a shortlist of best rotations in baseball, joining teams like the Mariners, Blue Jays, and Yankees who also have dominant rotations.

Looking at the rotation, many fans see the potential dominance of the top three in the rotation. After all, Burnes is a solidified ace and former Cy Young Award winner while Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez are both coming off dominating seasons and were big time prospects for the Orioles.

In all of this, it seems that people have forgotten that the O's have a fourth option who has shown he can dominate opposing batters throughout a season. Just two years ago, most fans took for granted that John Means was a potential ace in the rotation and now he is deemed as an afterthought for a team that has struggled with starting pitching over the past few seasons.

Don't forget about John Means as an impact player in the Orioles rotation

Of course, Means has only made six starts since the end of 2021 thanks to Tommy John Surgery which kept him out of action for essentially all of 2022 and 2023. He did make four starts in his return last September and pitched well, albeit in a limited capacity as he was ramped back into action while simultaneously helping the O's in their chase for the Division title. In those four starts, Means pitched to a 2.66 ERA and 157 ERA+ in 23.2 innings pitched. Despite the strong ERA, Means was not dominating hitters like he has in the past and mostly relied on command and weak contact. He struck out only 10 batters in those four starts with 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.

His best start came at a critical time as he allowed only one hit, a seventh-inning home run from Andres Gimenez, in 7.1 innings pitched as the Orioles squeaked by the Guardians 2-1 in the penultimate Saturday of the regular season. In that start, Means showed what he is capable of. At his best, John forces weak contact as his changeup works off his other pitches to baffle hitters and create weak flyouts and groundouts.

Before his Tommy John Surgery, Means had two dominant seasons where he proved his ability to be a true ace in Major League Baseball. In 2019, Means burst onto the scene after not having much prospect status and was one of the better young players in the game. That season, Means was the sole Orioles representative at the All-Star Game in Cleveland and was able to anchor an otherwise chaotic and subpar rotation. Along with the All-Star Game appearance, Means also finished second in AL Rookie of the Year, finishing behind Yordan Alvarez but ahead of Brandon Lowe who had a strong rookie season in Tampa Bay.

That season, Means finished with a 3.60 ERA in 27 starts with a 131 ERA+ while also keeping the ball in the yard impressively well. Since 2019, his strikeout numbers have steadily increased while the walk numbers have decreased.

After a lackluster 2020, Means once again dominated in 2021 with a 3.62 ERA and 123 ERA+ in 26 starts and 146.2 innings pitched. Similar to 2019, Means was a bright spot in an otherwise putrid rotation that consistently put out names like Aaron Brooks and Matt Harvey on the mound.

While Means did not collect any hardware in 2021, he did have one of the best starts an Orioles has had since the '70s that season in Seattle when he pitched a no-hitter against the Mariners in a weekday matinee in early May. Not only did Means no-hit the Mariners, he did not walk or hit any batters. Means was one Pedro Severino bobble away from the first Perfect Game in nine years in MLB.

In his two full seasons, Means has proven that he is a centerpiece in any rotation but his struggles mainly stem from his health and the peripherals that claim that he should not have been as good as he has been. Of course, the biggest concern is his ability to keep his elbow healthy after undergoing TJS. Even before this surgery, health issues have plagued Means as he missed time in 2020 and 2021 due to injury.

In 2020, Means missed what would have been his first Opening Day start due to an injury suffered near the end of the summer ramp-up period before the two-month season. In his place, Tommy Milone made the start against the Red Sox in front of cardboard cutouts. Means did make 10 starts in 2020 which was essentially a full season given the circumstances and was healthy the first couple months of 2021 before he was off and on the Injured List over the final few months.

As for the peripherals, Means has consistently had a FIP which is somewhat significantly worse than his actual ERA. In short, many believe that FIP is a better test of how well a pitcher has performed than ERA since it takes away randomness and only measures what the pitcher can control. In 2019, Means had a 4.41 FIP compared to his 3.60 ERA. In 2020, he had a 5.60 FIP compared to 4.53 ERA. In 2021, his FIP was 4.62 and ERA 3.62. Last September, he had a 5.24 FIP which nearly doubled his 2.66 ERA.

Essentially, his relatively low strikeout rates make him a target for relatively high FIP numbers. Means has also never truly had the benefit of pitching a full season in the new parameters of Camden Yards, which are significantly more pitcher-friendly than the dimensions he pitched in front of before 2022.

In turn, his home run numbers were also unfriendly to his peripherals because he would allow cheap home runs that would not go yard now at Camden Yards. His status as a left-handed pitcher will also help in this regard as he will face mostly righties who are hitting into the Great Wall of Baltimore on their pull side which makes cheap home runs even less likely.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the Orioles are in seemingly uncharted territory as they will enter 2024 with a top-tier rotation headed by a new acquisition in Corbin Burnes. Despite most of the media attention going to Burnes as well as Bradish and Rodriguez, it is important for Orioles fans to remember that their number four starter would be the Opening Day starter for many teams across the baseball landscape.

All this being said, John Means has the potential for another great season in 2024 and the Orioles have the potential to have the best rotation in the sport if Means pitches to his potential.