Even with a half-season as the Orioles’ best starting pitcher already on his resume, rookie left-hander John Means hasn’t been able to rid himself from the notion that a trip to the manager’s office is “how you get sent down.”
He was, by his own admission, expecting to be among the first cuts from the major league roster in spring training. He was the last player to ultimately make the 2019 team, all of which made the words manager Brandon Hyde spoke to him Sunday that much more special.
“You’re an All-Star,” Hyde told Means, making him the first homegrown Orioles starter to make the All-Star team since newly elected Hall of Famer Mike Mussina and the club’s only representative at the July 9 MLB All-Star Game in Cleveland. Means’ selection was announced during the All-Star Selection Show on ESPN.
“Going into spring training, I was just trying to kind of make a statement to the coaches to hopefully get a call-up at some point this year,” Means said. “I ended up kind of being the last man on the roster, and started this year just trying to go out there and do my best and see what happens.
“Now, we're here.”
The 26-year-old Means, by virtue of his 7-4 record and 2.50 ERA, became the first Orioles starter to be selected for the All-Star Game since Chris Tillman in 2013. While every team is guaranteed one representative, the league-worst Orioles had two worthy candidates in Means and outfielder Trey Mancini. Mancini is batting .302/.357/.544 with 17 home runs and 19 doubles, putting him among the league-leaders in multiple offensive categories.
If Means had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title — he’s pitched 75 2/3 innings thanks to his early time in the bullpen and a recent stint on the injured list with a shoulder strain — his 2.50 mark would rank third in the American League.
And despite his modest background — he was an 11th-round draft pick in 2014 who never made a minor league All-Star team — he’s pitched like someone who could make one at this level since his first outing of the season, when he reintroduced himself after a late-season cameo in 2018 by carving up the vaunted New York Yankees lineup on opening weekend.
He gave a glimpse of the increased fastball velocity and refined changeup that brought his improbable ascent to new heights Sunday.
His rise over the last year is a fitting story for the rebuilding Orioles and their emphasis on player development in the first year of what could be a long process back to contention.
Means was summoned from his couch in Kansas City last September to start throwing again in Sarasota to cover for the Orioles' late-season pitching crisis, his impressive stint at Triple-A Norfolk finished and his season over. He began the season with a third stint at Double-A Bowie but moved up in May and finished the year with a 3.48 ERA in 20 games at Triple-A Norfolk.
Before he was called back into action, however, he made the three-plus-hour drive from Kansas City to St. Louis-based P3 Premier Pitching & Performance to try and develop an offseason program. He allowed five runs in 3 1/3 innings in his late September appearance against the Boston Red Sox, and once he began throwing in December, started his transformation into a pitcher who was officially deemed All-Star caliber on Sunday.
There were the arm- and shoulder-strengthening exercises that have allowed him to go from a pitcher whose fastball velocity averaged 89-90 mph last year at Norfolk into one who has averaged 91.8 mph this year and routinely reaches the 94-95 mph range.
But there was also a crash-course in the analytics that were about to be installed with the Orioles under their new front office, one in which pitchers with high-spin fastballs like Means learn they're best suited to pitch up in the strike zone — something he began doing in 2018 at the urging of his pitching coaches without knowing the numbers behind it.
Means was also informed of the strengths that the data showed he had in his changeup. By working with Orioles minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt on that pitch, he ultimately created one of the game's best weapons.
In that first outing of the season against the Yankees, Means threw his changeup 35 times on 79 pitches and got 12 swinging strikes on it. He's thrown the pitch 27.37% of the time this season, and opposing hitters have whiffed on it 16% of the time. It's been an asset against the heavily right-handed lineups in the AL East, and his ability to throw his fastball to all parts of the plate to keep hitters off-balance has carried him to the best first-half an Orioles starter has had in years.
He hasn’t, however, gotten comfortable with the success. He joked with his teammates in the dugout Sunday that when he introduced himself to the fellow stars on the All-Star Game roster, their response would be “Who are you?” He insisted he won’t think a trip to the manager’s office isn’t about being optioned to the minors until he has no minor league options remaining, even after Sunday’s visit proved so much more special than that.
“It was an unbelievable moment to be able to tell him, and we're really happy for him,” Hyde said. “It's well-deserved. He's had an All-Star first half, and really happy for him. He's going to really enjoy it. That's an incredible few days.
“For a guy that never made a minor league All-Star team, he told me today he didn't even make all-conference in college, barely made our club out of spring training, and he's an All-Star — that's really, really cool. Cool story.”