Thursday, May 6, 2021

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, May 6, 2021 -- ["Means" Pun Here]

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 30
May 6, 2021

John Means’s first career no-hitter, by the numbers:


Means’s start, with no hits or walks allowed and 12 strikeouts, had a Game Score of 99, making it the 13th nine-inning start this century to reach that threshold, and the first since Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter last August. It goes in the books as one of the top 25 nine-inning starts ever. There are many ways to grade starts now -- we’ll get to another below -- but the ease of Game Score, which can be calculated quickly from a box score, remains my favorite.


Means threw first-pitch strikes to 26 of the 27 batters he faced, getting ahead 0-1 on 23 of them. That’s a fast track to a no-hitter. This season, when a pitcher starts 1-0, batters hit .242 in the at-bat; when he starts 0-1, they hit .204. The vig is paid when the batter puts that first pitch in play. They hit .341 in those spots, but yesterday the Mariners put just three first pitches in play, including J.P. Crawford’s final out, going 0-for-3.

As an aside, that .242 number is on an island. With the caveat that it’s early and we haven’t played in warm weather yet...

Lowest league BA after getting ahead 1-0

2021   .242
2020   .257
2018   .262
1988   .265
1989   .265

I’ve written in other contexts about the way in which pitchers control the game to a greater extent than they ever have before. This adds to that pile; even when they spot the hitter a ball, they’re holding the league to a batting average that would be in the bottom five in baseball history overall.


Two years ago today Means, who had just begun taking regular turns in the Orioles’ rotation, held the Red Sox to three hits and a run over seven innings. That day he averaged 91.9 mph on his four-seam fastball, topping out at 93.8 mph. Yesterday, he threw that four-seamer at 93.2 mph on average, and he reached 94.6 in the eighth inning. He made the All-Star team as a rookie mostly because some Oriole had to go. He’s set to make it this year because he’s one of the best pitchers in the AL, and that increased velocity is a big part of why.


Every no-hitter is stressful in its own way, but this one was as close to a rocking-chair one as you’ll find. The Mariners put 14 balls in play, and of those, just two had a better-than-average chance of becoming a hit, based on how they left the bat. The best chance came off the bat of Kyle Lewis in the second, an 86-mph line drive that was hit almost right at Maikel Franco at third base. Per Baseball Savant, it had an expected batting average of .530. Lewis also hit a ball in the eighth that looked dangerous off the bat, but was hauled in easily by Austin Hays.


This was the fourth* no-hitter of the 2021 season in just 35 days, putting the league on pace to shatter the record of seven, set four times, most recently in 2015. I’m a jaded stathead in some ways, but not when it comes to no-hitters. I think they’re cool accomplishments no matter what, and like many fans I hold my breath a little when I’m at a game until both teams have their first base knock. I have never seen one in person, coming closest on this frigid afternoon at Wrigley Field.

(*I’m counting Madison Bumgarner’s. He got credit for a complete game and a shutout. You can’t give him credit for those and not give him credit for a no-hitter.)

With that said, no-hitters need to be somewhat rare to maintain their charm. We had 14 in a two-season stretch in the early 1990s, including four in June 1990, and they lost their luster a bit. I know I personally roll my eyes a bit when the red “no-hitter” flag pops up in the sixth inning on the MLB app, as it seems like we get those a few times a week now. We’ve never seen a hitting environment like this, with the highest strikeout rate ever, and the rate of hits on contact reduced by the deadened baseball. Taking nothing away from Means, Bumgarner, Carlos Rodon, and Joe Musgrove, I am curious to see what the context for their no-hitters will be five months from now.