O's rookie All-Star Means has turned heads

July 9th, 2019

Two Sundays ago, when Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde called John Means into his office at Oriole Park, Means grew uncomfortable. As a roster long shot coming into Spring Training, this was the place Means had been trying to avoid since reporting to Sarasota, Fla., in early February. For Means, the trepidation of walking through those doors is natural. And it won’t go away, he quipped, “at least until all my options are up.”

Never mind that Hyde’s message was the opposite of what Means feared. And by the time he walked out, Means wasn’t being sent down -- he was going to Cleveland. The 26-year-old was a newly-minted All-Star. Baltimore’s rookie ace is the Orioles' lone representative in tonight's 89th iteration of the Midsummer Classic. He is simultaneously the game’s least likely participant and one of its most deserving.

“The minute I start introducing myself, [the other All-Stars] are going to be like, ‘Who? Who are you?’” Means said. “Going into Spring Training, I was just trying to make a statement to the coaches and hopefully get called up at some point… I just went out there and did my best. And now we’re here.”

Now, a short week and change after earning the nod, has it set in?

“I think once we get to the field, I’ll start talking to guys and maybe getting some side-eye, not sure who I am and what I’m doing here,” Means joked Monday in Cleveland. “But no, it’ll be fun. It’s kind of a cool experience that no one knows who I am, and I’m still here.”

Who is John Means?

From roster periphery to All-Star. Three days after making the team came the beer shower, a celebration of Means’ first career win, when he flummoxed the Yankees for three-plus innings in the Bronx. Less than two weeks later, he was in the rotation. Fourteen starts of at least five innings after that, Means is the anchor of it, so much so that the Orioles have set their second-half pitching plans around the rookie southpaw.

At 7-4 with a 2.50 ERA through 18 games (14 starts), Means has been the pillar of dependency the rest of the Orioles' staff has wobbled around. He leads the team in ERA, WHIP (1.07), FIP (3.93), walk rate and WAR (3.4).

“The last couple months I have been diving into all my pitches and really moving the ball around well, and I would think, ‘Oh, OK. This could work,’” Means recalled Monday.

“Once you get settled in and start rattling off a few good starts, you start gaining that confidence. I just keep trying to go out there, be consistent and keep pitching. Obviously, to this level, I didn’t know it was going to happen.”

Nobody else did either. Means never made a Minor League All-Star team, was never ranked on any publication’s list of the Orioles' top prospects. He is the first O's starter to make the All-Star team since Chris Tillman in 2013 and the first Baltimore rookie to make the All-Star team since Andy Etchebarren in 1966.

Where did Means come from?

Tiny Olathe, Kansas, via Fort Scott Community College and West Virginia University, and the 11th round in the 2014 Draft. Means is just one of three players from his Gardner-Edgertown High School ever drafted (in the same year, no less, that then-uber-prospect Bubba Starling went No. 5 overall to the Royals), and the second from Fort Scott to make an impact in the Majors. Former first baseman Adam LaRoche is the other.

“I’ve gotten hundreds of text messages, old coaches, old friends, high school teammates, that sort of thing.” Means said. “I’m not very good at responding. I try to get back to everybody. I’m not really an attention guy. I’m not a loud person.”

Now with an All-Star nod to his resume, Means is able to reminisce on his time in school as the instance where his development took off.

“I think that’s one of the biggest growth periods of my career,” said Means, the first Mountaineer in a Major League All-Star Game. “Transferring in and playing against some really good competition in the Big 12. That, and just growing up as a man.”

How did he get here?

That story begins back in Kansas, too, where Means would’ve spent this break had the Midsummer Classic not come calling. He was also there last autumn when the Orioles did, the club starved for pitching after last summer’s Trade Deadline sell off.

With many of their other options exhausted, the Orioles thrust Means onto their 40-man roster. Eventually Means found himself at Fenway Park in late September, long after his solid season at Triple-A had concluded. It did not go well. Means allowed five runs in three-plus innings before heading into the offseason dead set on getting better. He commuted weekly from his family home outside Kansas City to P3 Premier Pitching and Performance, a private pitching lab in St. Louis, where Means received a crash course in biomechanics and the type of analytical data that would soon be available to him with the Orioles.

Admittedly, Means reported to Spring Training thinking he’d be one the first cuts, but he also came equipped with the spoils of his offseason training: a fastball with improved velocity and the knowledge of its above-average spin rate.

Every time Sunday cut day rolled around, Means prepared his fiancee, former pro soccer goalie Caroline Stanley, for the worst. Every time, he remained. In the meantime, Means took to receiving special instruction from Minor League coordinator Chris Holt, who taught Means a new pronation technique that gave his changeup more downward biting action.

A string of solid Grapefruit League outings and one Alex Cobb groin strain later, Means was on the team. Fast forward a few months and the changeup has become Means’ main weapon and one of the dirtiest in baseball. Per Statcast, he throws it a lot -- 28 percent of the time -- seventh most among left-handed starters this season. Means’ hard-hit rate is 31.4 percent (eighth best in the American League), and it falls to 23.5 percent when he throws his changeup.

“I see [his] confidence building,” Hyde said. “I think going into the year he was kind of feeling his way through a little bit. There’s a presence now… I’m really proud of him.”

“It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been pretty hectic,” Means added. “But at the same time, it’s doesn’t really feel real. I still haven’t really woken up from the experience yet.”

What happens next?

Since Means and Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman are the only lefties available to pitch for the AL tonight, he will almost certainly pitch. Beyond the fact that the NL roster is loaded with left-handed batters, AL manager Alex Cora knows firsthand how well Means has pitched this season. In three starts against Boston this season, Means is 1-1 with a 2.12 ERA.

In any event, Means will look to sponge up all he can during a couple-day span he never thought would come. There’s no single person he feels he must talk to -- “Everybody has something to bring to the table. … I’m looking forward to talking to all of them,” he said -- but he hopes, at the very least, he can show what Kansas and Baltimore baseball are all about.

After that, though, he’s still not sure if it’ll have sunk in.

“Right when I walked in, I’m seeing guys walk around and it’s just like, ‘What am I doing here? Do I belong?’” Means said Monday. “But it’s going to be fun. I’m enjoying it at the same time.”