Looking back on it on the season’s final day, John Means called 2019 “a crazy, crazy year.” Why wouldn’t he? A year prior, he’d sat in the same Fenway Park dugout distraught, on the wrong end of a disappointing, ineffective, emergency Major League debut, and then embarked on the offseason questioning if his career was over.
Flash forward to the final week of this season, and Means sat in that same dugout on the forefront of the Orioles’ future plans. Of all the surprise contributors to emerge for the team in 2019, few were more impactful than Means, who leaped from the roster periphery to become the club’s out-of-nowhere All-Star and emergent ace.
“It was something nobody -- me or anybody close to me -- really expected to happen,” Means told MLB.com. “It’s been a whirlwind for everybody involved. When I came up last year, I thought this would be my only chance to pitch in the big leagues. … I was expecting to get DFA’d. I wasn’t expecting to be on the roster coming into Spring Training. Obviously, I got a chance, and my goal was just to raise eyebrows.”
Let’s take a look at how Means did that over the course of the past eight months:
What Went Right
It’s remiss to tell Means’ story with starting back before Spring Training, when Means made the decision to attend sessions at the progressive P3 Premier Pitching & Performance center in St. Louis. It was a four-hour commute from Means’ hometown outside Kansas City, and a significant investment for the former ninth round pick who’d spent much of the past five seasons in the Minor League. But Means bought in.
“I kind of risked it all,” Means said. “I stayed in a hotel for five days and then came back home. It was a four-hour drive. Stay in a hotel, come back for the weekend. Do it again the next week. It was a bit of an investment. But I looked at it like: All I need to do is stay in the big leagues a couple days to pay it all off.”
It did. Means arrived in Sarasota throwing 3-5 mph harder, and spent the spring revamping his changeup with minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt. To his surprise, he made the team out of spring training, impressed the Orioles with three strong outings in middle relief and was in the rotation by mid-April.
“At the beginning of camp, I thought I’d be one of the first guys sent to Minor League camp,” Means said.
He was soon the anchor of an often undermanned, noncompetitive staff that battled through adversity and turnover all summer. Means was the rock, winning six of eight decisions at one point and riding into the All-Star break with a 2.50 ERA. He became the first Orioles starter to earn All-Star selection since Chris Tillman in 2013, and the franchise’s first rookie to do so since Andy Etchebarren in 1966.
All told, Means finished his rookie year 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA in 31 games (27 starts). He led Orioles hurlers in wins, ERA, WHIP, and WAR.
What Went Wrong
There was that rough stretch after the break, when Means began the second half by going 1-5 with 7.46 over his first six second-half starts. His strikeout rate fell, walk rate increased and secondary pitches were largely non-factors during this time when he slogged through a string of inefficient outings. After failing to get out of the fourth in three straight starts from late-July to early-August, Means resolved to pitch deeper into games more consistently. He pitched into the seventh inning in five of his seven starts to close out the year.
Just before the stretch run, Means left the team to be with his family for the better part of a week, though he did not miss any starts. It was eventually revealed Means had been pitching with the news that his father, Alan, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Means met and rejoined the Orioles on Aug. 30 in Kansas City, where he delivered one of the most dominant and emotional performances of the MLB season. With Alan and dozens of other friends and family in the stands, Means threw seven stellar innings his childhood team to lead Baltimore to a 14-2 win. Means said he dreamed his entire life of pitching at Kauffman Stadium, where he routinely attended games as a kid.
While Means arrived in camp last spring as an afterthought, he will report in 2020 as the opposite. The Orioles are expecting him to again provide stability to a pitching situation very much in flux. The Orioles had MLB’s worst staff and used a franchise-record 18 starters in 2019. Getting another strong season from Means would be a boon, given how little was expected of him and how little else the Orioles can count on for the pitching side of things.
For Means, that means 2020 will be about building on his excellent rookie year and avoiding a sophomore slump. He said he’ll return to P3 Performance this winter with an eye toward adding more velocity and further developing his slider and curveball -- which he combined into a slurve mid-season -- into a swing-and-miss pitch. Missing more bats period would allow Means to pitch deep into games more consistently.
It took Means 119 minor league appearances before making the Majors. Now his goal is to stay, and that means not being satisfied with the successes 2019 brought.
“I was never supposed to be here,” Means said. “I wasn’t a first rounder. I wasn’t a prospect. I wasn’t someone who was supposed to do well. So when you have your success, you want to keep it going. That might take you to a certain level, but it won’t take you over the top or over the hump. I’ve had to battle my whole career, I’ve had to get to the point where I get a chance and take advantage of it. I knew if I struggled at the beginning of this year, I’d be sent down. I knew I’d be sent down until I did well again. But there is no learning in the big leagues. You either have success or you’re going back down. That’s my mentality. I’ve always pitched like my back’s against the wall. I’ve always pitched like I’m not a prospect, so I have to do well or I’m not going to stick here.”