Five months after John Means was rustled from his couch for a late-September call-up that came during the team's unprecedented expanded-roster pitching shortage, the biggest takeaway he can have is he doesn't have to debut anymore.
With that out of the way, Means spent the offseason looking to add strength to bump his velocity back up from a dip that lasted all of 2018. He also dove into some of the progressive analytics-based concepts that permeated the game in recent years and arrived in Baltimore this winter with the club’s new front office and coaching staff.
The results is a pitcher who came to camp with what he called "the best stuff I've ever had," and has already spent a few months pitching with the same philosophy the team's analysts wanted him to adopt anyway.
"Last year, my velo was down, so that was kind of my goal going into the offseason, to try and get that up," said Means, 25. "I was averaging 89-90 [mph], and my first outing I was 93-95, and my second one I was 91-94, something like that. ... I also learned up on that technology that they're using, and coming into spring training, it's been a very, very smooth transition into the season because they brought to me the same stuff that I learned in the offseason, and they kind of figured out the best way to attack everybody this year with the stuff that I have.
Means, the Orioles' 11th-round pick in 2014 out of West Virginia, was quickly cast into the role of the touch-and-feel left-hander who wasn't going to overpower anyone but was going to be a reliable hand on the farm. He never pitched fewer than 138 innings or fewer than 24 starts in a minor league season, but was in his third season at Double-A Bowie in May 2018, when he got promoted to Triple-A Norfolk, and arrived at a new pitching philosophy there that helped take him to the next level.
Kennie Steenstra, the pitching coach at Bowie, and Mike Griffin, his peer at Norfolk, had always batted around the idea of Means pitching more up in the zone. Each coach knew pitchers that approach worked for, but it was counterintuitive to Means, who thought, "They're going to hit homers when you throw it up in the zone and leave it up.”
"And it worked," Means said. "I started getting swings and misses underneath it and just kind of rolled from there."
Means had a 3.48 ERA in 20 games for the Tides, but went home to Kansas City when the season ended, and was surprised to hear from the Orioles midway through September that they might need him to go start throwing in Sarasota, Fla.
"I was done," Means said. "I was cashed in. I thought it was over. ... Once I got down here, I said, ‘I'm probably getting called up. This is probably going to happen.’ I didn't hear anything for a few days, and then it was, 'They're really going to send me home.' Then [Alex] Cobb got a blister and, 'OK, this is happening.' It was all kind of lined up, and I got called up."
When the bullpen phone rang in the first half of a doubleheader Sept. 26 in Boston, he'd never heard his name called out that way before. He liked the fact that he got to run in from the bullpen like a reliever to get some of his adrenaline out. He pitched 3 1/3 innings of six-hit, five-run ball at Fenway Park, allowing a home run to Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez.
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And then he went back to Kansas City to build on it all, and in the process turned himself into the kind of pitcher the new Orioles regime might regard differently than the old one. At the very least, he can learn the way they might be teaching.
"I'm a math guy," Means said. "When a computer tells me, ‘This is your formula for success,’ then that's way more comforting than saying, 'All right, try this out, figure this out.' So, with this stuff, I think that putting it into a formula — this equals this, you throw it here, this is where you're going to have the most success — I feel a lot more confident. Especially on the mound, too, there's way more conviction to my ball when you know it's the right pitch."
It turns out that the way the new staff wants him to pitch meshes well with what he and his coaches arrived at in a general sense.
"Last year what I realized was I was a lot better throwing up in the zone than down in the zone, which is the opposite of what we're taught growing up," Means said. "You want to throw at the knees, but my fastball doesn't really work like that. Now that they have this technology and they're talking to me, they said, 'This is how it reads and you're right. You're better at the top of the zone.' That's what I started doing in Triple-A, I started living up in the zone and had a lot more success like that. That's why I'm excited coming into this year. I actually have an idea of what I'm good at, what I'm bad at, what I can do and what I can't do. That's where I had my success."
His first spring outing was the beginning of a 10-run eighth inning Feb. 26 against the Tampa Bay Rays, with three runs on his account. He started in place of Nate Karns on March 1 against the New York Yankees and struck out two in two hitless, scoreless innings, and gets another nod on Wednesday against the Rays again.
"That first outing, I was throwing harder than I ever have in my life," Means said of his 95 mph fastballs. "I've come into spring training stronger than ever, and I know that. I saw that, and the numbers were there. Even the location was there, too. It was just kind of one of those days, and then I knew going into my next start that I had the best stuff I've ever had, so I might as well attack the zone, go right at them, and I actually got good results. It was nice."