To say Orioles left-hander John Means' 2019 season came out of nowhere doesn't begin to describe how he was perceived. Not only was he an afterthought prior to this season, but he was an afterthought of a pitching prospect in the Orioles' farm system. Considering the Orioles' near-constant need for pitching, that's no easy feat.
Still, that's also a little unfair to the Orioles, because the John Means of 2018 and seasons past was not the same as Means in 2019. Only once did Means rank on the team's list of top 30 prospects by MLB Pipeline, slotting in at No. 29 in 2017. But after the 2018 season, he put in work at P3 Premier Pitching & Performance in St. Louis, where staff members developed an offseason program for him to help increase his four-seam fastball velocity through strength programs and utilizing high-speed cameras.
Means, 26, also worked with newly-hired minor-league pitching coordinator Chris Holt during spring training to refine his changeup.
As Means explained to Eno Sarris of The Athletic in August, the issue with his changeup prior to 2019 was that the velocity gap between that pitch and his fastball wasn't big enough. Holt had Means focus on pronating -- "a move of your wrist and hand toward the thumb near the end of release," according to Sarris -- to decrease some of the velocity on the pitch but maintain deception.
The extra work paid off. Through early September, Means is averaging about 2 mph more on his fastball. Combined with his changeup, which he was able to reduce by a couple of ticks, the fastball-changeup gap jumped from about 7 mph to 11 mph. As Sarris noted, “only six changeups have a bigger velocity gap than Means does.”
Not only is the changeup now Means' most devastating weapon and one of the best in the majors, but his improvements on both pitches took him from throwing fastballs and changeups about 60 percent of the time to better than 80 percent. No longer primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, the changeup has become his preferred secondary offering.
It didn't take long for Means' adjustments to transform him into a reliable arm. Due to a combination of injuries to teammates and his newfound effectiveness, he went from a fringe relief option to a rotation mainstay in about a month. On the season, he has a 3.47 ERA and 4.34 FIP in 137.1 innings. The ERA and FIP are team bests among starters, and only Dylan Bundy has thrown more innings. Means' overall wins above replacement totals are also tops among O's pitchers: 4.1 (Baseball-Reference) and 2.8 (FanGraphs).
Means' rise led him to a somewhat surprising spot in the 2019 MLB All-Star Game ahead of Trey Mancini. It was tough news for Mancini, but truly amazing news for Means, who had recently pondered retirement. He didn't appear in the game, but just being there was an astounding achievement.
What Means is doing is more than enough for now, but there's always that same, lingering question whenever a player exceeds expectations: Is this for real? In that sense, Means provides an interesting example when comparing his peripherals to his Statcast numbers.
Means seemingly doesn't strike out enough batters (19.3 K%), has been fortunate on balls in play (.252 BABIP) and has been pitching with a low home-run-to-fly-ball rate. With these concerns alone, his mid-3.00 ERA seems flukish.
And yet, that only tells part of the story. That's because Means has been very good when it comes to limiting hard contact. His average exit velocity allowed of 87.3 mph is in the 68th percentile of pitchers, and his hard-hit percentage (the percentage of balls hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher) is in the 89th percentile. If a pitcher isn't going to miss a ton of bats, he'll need to reduce the amount of free passes and minimize batted ball damage. So far, Means has done those things.
The fact remains there's still a lot to learn about this new version of Means. He's been a tremendous surprise and story, but it would be a mistake to assume he'll automatically keep producing. He is undoubtedly deserving of a 2020 rotation spot. He'll be joined by a presumably healthy Alex Cobb and Dylan Bundy (barring any trades) along with any free agents, prospects and a slew of current options hoping to stick around (like Aaron Brooks, Asher Wojciechowski, Gabriel Ynoa, Chandler Shepherd and others). But he's going to have to keep proving himself.
In the meantime, focus on how Means finishes the season. Keep making fun “Means” puns that aren't nearly as clever as you think. Marvel at his ascension and stunning All-Star nod. See if he keeps tinkering with his selection of breaking balls. Recognize that there's something special about finding success after fighting off the urge to walk away. And acknowledge the grit needed for the Gardner, Kan., native to throw seven innings of two-run baseball during a homecoming start against the Royals in Kansas City Aug. 30 after recently learning his father, Alan, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Means may end up as a mid-rotation asset or flame out next season. But he wasn't supposed to pitch this well, ever. He must be ecstatic that he decided not to hang up his spikes. That goes for the Orioles as well.