Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
Editor’s note: Less than two days after this was published, Wade Miley of the Reds threw the fourth no-hitter of the year. This is the second season in MLB history with four no-hitters before the end of May.
A little over two years ago, John Means felt his career had stalled to the point where his priority wasn’t refining his pitching craft or trying new workout routines. Instead, he was fine-tuning his LinkedIn bio.
Aside from “professional baseball player,” Means’s previous work experience included a four-month stint as a substitute teacher at De Soto Public School District 73. Two years later, it’s safe to say Means won’t need to worry about keeping that profile up to date any time soon.
Means dazzled by throwing a no-hitter on Wednesday against the Mariners, striking out a dozen batters while facing the minimum 27 batters. It was an outing that likely few saw coming when the lefthander was toiling in the minor league and wondering how much longer he had a future in baseball.
Means was an 11th-round pick in 2014 out of West Virginia and was never viewed as a premier prospect. He spent three straight years at the Double-A level and was 35-41 with a 3.83 ERA during his minor league career. He didn’t possess standout velocity, didn’t strike many people out and didn’t flash the ace potential that he’s been putting on display through his first seven starts.
Now, he’s thrown a no-hitter, the latest dominant performance in what’s shaping up to be a career year for the 28-year-old. It was also the latest in what’s been a record pace of no-hitters for a league where making contact has become harder and harder to do.
Means’s no-no is the third official no-hitter of the season, following Joe Musgrove’s on April 9 and Carlos Rodón’s on April 14. It’s the fourth if you consider Madison Bumgarner’s seven-inning no-hitter against the Braves on April 25, which the league does not officially recognize since the game did not last nine innings.
Through Wednesday night’s action, we’re now 18.6% of the way through the season based on total games played. With the acknowledgement that no-hitters don’t exactly occur at regular intervals, we are on pace for 16 no-hitters this season—and that’s without counting Bumgarner’s unofficial no-no.
The record for most official no-hitters in a single season is eight (1884), and the modern record is seven, which has happened three different times (1990, 1991, 2012). There’s certainly luck and randomness baked into these things, but given the way the game is played at present, the conditions have never been more conducive for no-hitters.
The league’s batting average of .234 is an all-time low. If the current strikeout rate (24.3%) holds, it would set a new record for the 14th consecutive season. The current batting average on balls in play (.284) is the lowest in more than 30 years. Compound all of that with the rise of defensive shifts that’s handcuffing an entire type of hitter—powerful, lumbering left-handed batters—and the biggest pitfall for pitchers to overcome is to avoid giving up the long ball.
Limiting home runs was one of Means’s strengths coming up in the minor leagues. He averaged 0.75 HR/9 in the minors, though struggled more on that front in the majors before this season. He’s managed to effectively suppress home runs so far this year, giving up just 0.98 HR/9 through his first seven starts (the league average is 1.2 HR/9). Among the adjustments he’s made in 2021 is a greater reliance on his changeup, which hitters are batting a meager .125 against.
In his post-game interview after the 27th out, Means credited his late father—who passed away less than a year ago—for helping guide him through to the finish line. “I know my dad was back there today, telling me what pitch to throw,” he said to MASN.
Means’s story is already an inspirational success. Whatever comes next might not top Wednesday’s masterpiece, but one thing is for sure: he can now add another line to that LinkedIn profile, this time under career accomplishments.
• The struggles continue for the defending champion Dodgers, who were swept by the Cubs in an 11-inning defeat—their second straight walk-off loss. The Dodgers have lost four consecutive series and 13 of their last 17 games.
• Giancarlo Stanton’s blistering run continued against the Astros on Wednesday. The slugger went 3-for-4 with a walk, four RBIs and a home run that left the bat at 107.4 miles per hour. Stanton has hit safely in 11 straight games, raising his slash line to .314/.363/.590 for the year.
• The White Sox fell to the Reds, 1-0, in part thanks to a failure on Chicago’s coaching staff to understand the rules for placing a runner on second base in extra innings. It’s safe to say Tony La Russa’s White Sox tenure hasn’t gotten off to the smoothest start.
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