When the Orioles look back and recount the successes of their 2019 season, the rise of All-Star left-hander John Means will certainly be one of them.
From his intriguing spring training to his memorable relief outing in New York, all the way through to his All-Star appearance and emotional return to Kansas City, Means has inspired most of the good feelings and positive vibes around this team with his self-made journey into their rotation.
Once he completed his year with a start Sept. 28 in Boston, he sat down with The Baltimore Sun the next day to reflect on his rookie year. Means spoke about his perspectives throughout the season, what he’ll carry into 2020, and how different an already-busy offseason will be given the season he just had.
You talked about it a little [Sept. 28] about the symmetry of making your debut here [in 2018] and finishing this season here. That’s something that people like me will make a big deal about, but how much did you carry and think about all that stuff that happened last year once things actually got going here? Was it something you thought about a lot? You’re a person who’s pretty self-motivated. Is that something you used?
As bad as it did go last year, I got up here, got some strikeouts, and I’m like, 'OK, I get swings and misses on my stuff.’ It’s one of those things that once you debut and start to realize you can get some swings and misses up here, you kind of take that confidence into the next time you get a chance.
That’s what I took into this offseason. I knew some of my pitches were working and in the offseason, I knew what I needed to work on. I knew what I needed to bring the next year in spring training. And I accomplished my goal. All I wanted to do was raise some eyebrows coming into spring training. That’s all I wanted to do. I expected to start in Triple-A, but all I wanted to do was kind of get their attention a little bit. I knew I wasn’t on the front of their mind. I think more so, it adds confidence. After you get your debut over, it’s over, and then you focus on the next time you get a chance.
When do you feel like you were doing that, that you were raising eyebrows? That you weren’t just there?
Going into spring, the whole first week or so before games started, I could tell I was the low man on the totem pole. You get that sort of treatment. You get the vibe. I’m a very honest, real person, so I was like, ‘I know where I stand right now.’ I got my first outing out of the way. I was like 92-95 [mph] my first outing, and I never really hit above 93 [mph] in my life. I think after that, they were like, ‘Oh, we haven’t seen this on the video.’ They probably looked through the video of all the guys I had, so I knew I raised some eyebrows there. I got a start and threw pretty well, and all of a sudden, they were like, ‘OK.’
[Pitching coach Doug Brocail] came up to me about halfway through and asked me if I wanted to be a set-up guy. I was like, ‘OK, no one has ever even brought that up to me, ever, in my life, to be a set-up guy out of the bullpen.’ But of course I wanted to make the team. That’s all I care about. I was just counting the days, Sunday’s coming up, it’s cut day. It’s going to be this Sunday. Then, this Sunday. It’s just kind of one of those things that you just carry it on, carry it on, then ‘I might actually stay here.’ The days pass. I got some really good feedback from the coaches, and all of a sudden I’m on the team.
It’s funny you mention them asking you to be a set-up man. The way this year went for you, if you hadn’t made the club out of spring training, if things hadn’t broken the way they ultimately did, you could have been like a lot of the people who you came up with who are starting in Triple-A, but it’s your start day and they need a reliever, so you’re here and they give you a plane ticket back when they give you a plane ticket here. How fortunate do you feel that you haven’t had to deal with some of those things?
To not use an option out of spring training — once you use that one, usually you’re using five, six, seven options throughout the year unless you really make a statement, especially on a rebuilding team like us. To make the team out of camp, then pitching well and not having to use an option, I’m very, very fortunate that they actually gave me a chance. No one on the team, I’m sure, expected it. I was the last man. I was probably going to get called down first when they needed a guy, so for them to give me a chance like that and actually be able to prove myself doesn’t happen very often.
So it just kind of happened for you. Was there a moment in the season — you mentioned when [manager Brandon Hyde] called you down to be an All-Star, you thought it was that meeting. When does that go away?
Probably when September hit, when rosters expanded. That was kind of my mentality. My mentality going into the year was, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I go down to Triple-A, where I thought I was going to start the season? I’m just going to go out there, let it eat, and I’m not too worried about getting outs. I just want to go out there, show my stuff, and it is what it is. That was my whole mentality. I was just like, OK, I had a good outing here, hopefully I won’t get optioned. Hopefully my next one goes well, and it goes well, and it kind of started to work itself out. I was very fortunate. I’m very lucky to get that opportunity, but my mentality really didn’t change throughout the whole year. Like I said at the All-Star Game — I didn’t think I was getting optioned, but at the same time, it’s like, ‘What is he going to tell me?’ But I didn’t really get comfortable all year, because I knew I had all my options, until September. My goal was to make it to September.
What are you most proud of this year?
I guess that I never gave in. I had that rough stretch for a while. You can let that really get to you, and I had done that in years past, in the minor leagues. I had that rough stretch and it really knocks you a lot more down in the minor leagues, because you’re like, ‘Oh man, if I don’t do well I’m going to get released and it’s game over from there.’ But up here, I never really gave in. Even when things were going pretty rough, to come back and end up pitching well and finishing decently strong. That’s probably what I’m proud of the most.
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You’ve said a few times recently that even when you’ve had the results that you weren’t at your best. Do you have a good sense of what you can be? What you can be as a long-term major league pitcher, and what is that?
Yeah, I’m excited to go into this offseason because spending a full year in the big leagues, I have some sort of idea of what I’m going to do to become that pitcher that I want to be. I’m going to need a couple more things. I’m very honest with myself. I’m not going to be like, OK, I’m just going to sit on this, because I’m good enough now. If you don’t try and get better, you’re just going to get left behind. That’s the new era with all the technology they have now.
You’re going to get figured out unless you keep getting better and better and better, and that’s what you don’t see. These guys, the [Justin] Verlanders, the [Max] Scherzers, they’re constantly getting better. I know their numbers are just consistently good every year and they’re pretty similar, but they’re consistently getting better and honing their craft. It’s cool to see, but you don’t realize it. You think he’s just being the same person over and over. I’m excited to go into the offseason because there are some things I really want to work on to get better and get the results.
I thought about that when you started throwing the different breaking ball. This is someone who’s having this season, but it’s September and you’re already doing that. Is that the type of thing you’re talking about?
I’m going to go back [to P3 Premier Pitching & Performance], and that’s one of my main focuses this year, getting that swing-and-miss pitch, that swing-and-miss slider or curveball to get those swings and misses and get them off my changeup, get a nice curveball I can throw to righties and get some swings and misses. Obviously, I’m going to work on everything, but that’s something I’m excited to work on.
To wrap up, I know you were going to go wedding suit fitting over the All-Star break [Means is set to wed Caroline Stanley this fall]. Didn’t get to do that. But this is going to be a fun offseason I’m sure from that perspective. But how excited are you for that part? This has been a crazy journey, and to go home and be with your family again, to have that part of your life back with all this success behind you?
It’s one of those things that you don’t really think about until your last outing of the year. You sit back and say, ‘Now it’s the offseason. We’re going.’ It’s going to be a very different offseason now. I knew that after a few months up here. It’s just going to be a little different, and I’m looking forward to getting home with [my] family, fiancée, soon-to-be-wife. It’s going to be good being home with them.