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The Ballad of John Means

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Overlooked at every level he’s pitched at, the best pitcher on the Orioles’ staff has seemingly come out of nowhere, and he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Eight months ago, John Means was a fastball-slider lefty whose stuff topped out in the high ‘80s, and he wasn’t exactly making hearts race. Scouting reports called Means a guy who was “never going to miss many bats”; his stuff was not “overly impressive.” Even as Means rose through the Orioles’ minor league ranks, he remained a “fringe” prospect whose max upside seemed to be as “a swingman or a long reliever.” Last winter, more than one Orioles top prospects list left Means off entirely, and this blog classified him as a player around in the organization “strictly for depth, nothing more.”

Called up last September to stabilize a roster bleeding pitchers (the Orioles had just lost Richard Bleier, Pedro Araujo, and Gabriel Ynoa to injury), Means joined the ranks of unremarkable late-season innings eaters Sean Gilmartin, Yefry Ramírez, Cody Carroll, and Ryan Meisinger. He made exactly one appearance for the O’s in 2018, giving up five runs to the Red Sox over 3.1 innings in a horrific 19-3 blowout that ended with Jace Peterson on the mound.

Not much of a debut. Still, that winter, Means told himself, “Well, I made it, now I might as well invest in myself a little bit.” Means signed himself up for lessons at P3 Premier Pitching & Performance, a pitching development facility in St. Louis, and spent the winter driving himself back and forth from his native Kansas City twice a week.

For the self-described “thrower” who never had pitching lessons, the investment paid off. Means showed up to spring training touching 95 on the radar gun, harder than he ever had thrown in his life, and flashing a new pitch, his now-notorious changeup.

Even then, Means just squeaked onto the 25-man roster in April. His spot hardly seemed assured; if Alex Cobb hadn’t started the season on the IL, this story could have played out very differently.

A starter his whole career, Means made the team as depth in the bullpen, but with a string of four competent relief appearances, including a win in relief in New York, and starters Cobb, Nate Karns and Dan Straily ailing or just plain bad, Brandon Hyde gave Means a chance to start, and he hasn’t looked back.

Over thirteen appearances and nine starts, Means has pitched to a 2.80 ERA, a number that feels like it should be off-limits for Baltimore starters. He has a 3.00 strike-to-ball ratio, a 1.093 WHIP, and a .233 opponent batting average against him. His 1.8 pitching WAR not only leads the Orioles; it’s also the sixth-highest in the AL, above Masahiro Tanaka and—this blows my mind—Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow.

It’s fair to say that anyone who makes it as a pro athlete needs some luck to go with their talent, but Means needed more than most. “Overlooked” describes most of his career as a prospect. As a high school senior out of Olathe, Kansas, Means considered himself a hitter more than a pitcher. He got zero Division 1 offers—or D2 or D3, for that matter. Instead, to his surprise, he was drafted by the Braves in the 46th round of the 2011 draft, but that, he thinks, was mostly because his teammate, outfielder and star quarterback Bubba Starling (now in the Royals’ minor league system) was drawing scouts to the games. When Means got injured, a visiting scout told him to go to college instead. “Thank God I didn’t [sign],” Means now says.

So Means enrolled at Fort Scott Community College and played JUCO baseball for one year, posting a 6-0 record in 8 games with a 1.14 ERA and an average of 1.14 strikeouts per inning. This was enough to attract the attention of a Top 12 program, the West Virginia Mountaineers, the only D1 school to give him a chance.

The second time around, Means’ luck on the draft was better, although as the Orioles’ 11th round pick (331st overall), he was hardly lighting up top prospects lists. Over four years in the Orioles’ minor league ranks, Means never really garnered a ton of attention, even though he had some success along the way—for instance, in 2015 he pitched Delmarva’s first no-hitter in 17 years. In 2018, he pitched to a 3.48 ERA over 111 innings with the Tides, with 7 strikeouts per nine innings.

Means remained a competent, not a dominant pitcher until this year’s spring training, which means his luckiest moment yet may have been getting coaches who saw more in his stuff than the scouts did, and who had the tools to help cultivate it.

When he arrived in Norfolk in 2018, Means struggled with his command, says Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin. The two worked together between starts, and Means soon started pitching ahead in the count. Then in spring training, Means caught the eye of “changeup guru” Chris Holt, the Orioles’ new minor league pitching coordinator, who fiddled with Means’ release point to make the change read more like his fastball. “It’s nice to see because [my changeup is] one of the pitches I worked on in spring training, and to get some swings and misses, especially with two strikes, isn’t something that I’m used to,” says Means.

So whither from here? Means hasn’t been able to go deep in games, and besides the change, he doesn’t have swing-and-miss stuff. However, unlike a Dylan Bundy, Means’ stuff has only improved since he was in Single-A ball, and as a finesse pitcher with a good head for the game, Means figures to have some durability. Whether he’s played himself into trade chip or franchise player territory for the Orioles is impossible to say at this point, but it certainly looks like Means’ years toiling in the minors are over.

However improbably, John Means has gone from off the radar to big-league pitcher, and he’s feeling good. A couple of days ago, he told Draft Kings, “If you don’t think you’re the best pitcher, you probably shouldn’t be here. You should always go out there thinking you’re the best.”