Having started the 2019 season as an unheralded member of the Orioles’ organization, let alone their pitching staff, left-hander John Means ended it as the runner-up in American League Rookie of the Year voting. He’s the first left-handed starter to place in the top two of voting for the AL award since CC Sabathia in 2001.
Means finished behind Houston Astros slugger Yordan Álvarez, whose 24 home runs after his June debut allowed him to earn the award unanimously. Tampa Bay’s Brandon Lowe, a University of Maryland product, finished third in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s voting results, which were announced Monday. Means appeared on 21 of 30 ballots, receiving 16 second-place votes.
Unlike the award’s other two finalists, Means was not regarded among his team’s top prospects when the year began. He made the team out of spring training as a member of Baltimore’s bullpen, having arrived in camp with increased velocity thanks to his offseason training program and complementing that with an improved changeup.
After allowing one run across 5⅔ innings with nine strikeouts in three relief outings, Means made all but one of his final 28 appearances as a starter. His first-half ERA of 2.50 was second among AL pitchers with at least 80 innings, earning him the Orioles’ lone All-Star nod. During Means’ minor league climb, he was never an All-Star at any level.
Drafted in the 11th round of the 2014 draft out of West Virginia University, Means, 26, made his major league debut in September 2018 at Fenway Park when the Orioles needed late-season pitching coverage. A year and two days later, he made his final start of 2019 in Boston, working five innings to finish the year with a 3.60 ERA and 12-11 record. On a team that set a major league record for home runs allowed, Means was one of only 18 AL pitchers to give up no more than 1.34 home runs per nine innings while pitching at least 155 innings.
His 2.74 ERA at Camden Yards was the best by an Orioles first- or second-year starter since eventual Hall of Famer Mike Mussina’s 2.65 mark in 1992, the ballpark’s first season. Means’ success came in a season where the Orioles had a collective 6.02 home ERA.
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Means is the Orioles’ first Rookie of the Year runner-up since 2002, when right-hander Rodrigo Lopez and teammate Jorge Julio finished behind Toronto’s Eric Hinske. An Oriole has not been Rookie of the Year since Gregg Olson in 1989.
Means is only the third full-time pitcher to place in the top two of AL Rookie of the Year voting since 2012, though the other two, 2014 runner-up Matt Shoemaker and 2016 winner Michael Fulmer, appeared in a combined five games in 2019 because of injuries.
His recognition comes despite an 8.34 ERA in his first five starts of the second half, a time when he was battling his mechanics while dealing with his father’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis. On Aug. 30, in front of scores of family and friends, Means came off the family medical emergency list to pitch seven innings of two-run ball at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, where he grew up attending games.
The city is also where on Friday, he married Caroline Stanley, a former professional soccer goalie. That and Monday’s announcement punctuate a year that he never saw coming but will never forget.
The organizational hope is that, thanks to a budding farm system, Means is the first in a group of players contending for this honor and others in coming years. Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer are all expected to be added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster in the offseason and thus compete for roster spots during spring training and the 2020 season.
But unlike Means, each is viewed among the organization’s top prospects, with their potential impacts in Baltimore unlikely to be viewed as the surprise Means’ was in 2019. He entered spring training contending for roster spot. He’ll be vying for the role of Opening Day starter come February.
“I think now, going into this offseason knowing what I know after this year and seeing the results that I’ve had, I know how to get better, I know where I lack still,” Means said in September. "I’m not blind. I’m not just going into the offseason just trying to do the same thing and repeat. I’m trying to get better at what I’m bad at.”