It was the third game of the season and the Orioles were leading the Yankees 4-0, but trouble was brewing in the fourth inning when Dylan Bundy loaded the bases with two out, prompting manager Brandon Hyde to bring in a left-handed pitcher out of the pen.
The lefty gave up a walk and a single, narrowing the gap to 4-3, but he struck out Giancarlo Stanton with runners on the corners to end the threat. He struck out four more over the next three innings, keeping the powerful Yankee lineup at bay in what became a 7-5 Orioles win.
The lefty was John Means, and he was on his way to making his Baltimore breakthrough a season-long endeavor.
The Orioles lost 108 games, but they gained a pitcher in Means, who came out of nowhere to become the team’s most reliable starting pitcher. The 26-year-old Kansan finished 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA, 1.135 WHIP and 121 strikeouts in 155 innings, and was tabbed first as Baltimore’s lone All-Star in July, and then as an American League Rookie of the Year finalist after the season.
In an era in which it feels like every prospect is studied and analyzed from the moment he gets drafted, Means was, like his signature pitch, a change of pace. An 11th-round draft pick out of West Virginia University, Means was never topping the list of Orioles’ prospects, climbing as high as 29th in 2017. He was so-so in Double-A Bowie (9-9, 4.11) in 2017, and was decent at Triple-A Norfolk (6-5, 3.48) in 2018.
Good stats, sure. But nothing that had anyone following the Orioles saying “yeah, but just wait until John Means comes up...”
In 2019, however, Means snuck up on all the evaluators. It started with that relief appearance against the Yankees, and continued after he earned his first start on April 9. Means allowed one earned run in each of his first three starts, and five of his first six. His ERA climbed from 1.74 on April 24 to 2.80 by the end of May, but Means then had a 1.71 ERA over four June starts to get his mark back down to 2.50.
He did this without much of a strikeout arsenal — his fastball tops out at about 92 miles per hour, and he punched out only 7.0 batters per nine — but he did have a strikeout pitch. The changeup for Means is not just a pace-changer; it moves and fools batters enough to be a swing-and-miss pitch. Means also found more velocity thanks to an offseason strength regimen, and being able to climb from the high-80s into the low-90s could have made the difference between being a pretty good minor leaguer and being a major league All-Star.
That being said, there are some red flags with Means going into 2019. Though his numbers never crashed the way some doubters probably would have expected, Means did seem to get figured out somewhat as the season went on and his film got passed around. From the All-Star break on, Means went 5-7 with a 4.85 ERA. After allowing three or more runs only three times in his 14 starts before representing the Orioles at the Mid-Summer Classic, he did it six times in the 13 starts after.
Still, there’s no brighter part of the Orioles staff going into next season than Means. This could be the case for the next several years, as Means isn’t arbitration eligible until 2022 and won’t be a free agent until 2025.
The plan will be for Means to be right back at the front of the rotation in 2020. If he avoids the sophomore slump and looks like he did in the first half, however, the Orioles will have their options. Option A would be to keep Means as an anchor of the rebuild, and someone who can be a No. 1 or at least a No. 2 or No. 3 for when the wave of Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Co. arrive. There are certainly worse things to have on your baseball team than a steady left-handed starter.
If Means is showing he’s the real deal in 2020, however, Option B would be to explore his trade value. This is hardly imminent and there are few, if any, rumors that the Orioles are considering that path. It’s just the nature of a rebuild that if a good player falls into your lap, you see if you can take advantage of his heightened value to help your team for the long run.
An example of this mentality is Erik Bedard, who had a few mediocre seasons with the Orioles before improving to 15-11 with a 3.76 ERA in 2006 at 27 years old. The next year he was suddenly a star at 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 182 innings, and the Orioles, nowhere near contending, quickly dealt Bedard to help form the foundation of their next competitive run.
There are some differences here. One, Bedard had more starting experience than Means will next year; two, Bedard was an aloof personality who expressed no interest in staying in Baltimore while Means seems perfectly willing to stick around; and three, Bedard turned into a Cy Young caliber pitcher who racked up strikeouts, whereas Means is a reliable if unspectacular pitcher whose low strikeout totals and ratios will likely dampen any interest.
So look for Means to be leading the rotation next year and in the years to come. He won’t get much support in the next couple of seasons, but here’s hoping he can spend the ones after that leading a strong Orioles rotation and guiding the team back to its winning ways.