SARASOTA, Fla. - In the 2018 season on the farm, lefty John Means pitched to a 3.72 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, with a 1.26 WHIP and .268 opponent average against.
In 2019 - in the major leagues - he pitched better. He posted a 3.60 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP and a .234 average against. That ERA was the lowest by a Baltimore starter since Wei-Yin Chen posted a 3.34 mark in 2015. That ERA would have ranked seventh in the American League if Means had thrown seven more innings to qualify for league leaders. Over 155 innings, he allowed 8.0 hits per nine innings with 1.3 homers, 2.2 walks and 7.0 strikeouts.
Means made the 2019 AL All-Star team. After the season he finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, behind only Houston’s Yordan Alvarez.
All that after Means had a solid, but unspectacular year on the farm in 2018. But after that 2018 season Means wanted to improve his velocity and increase his overall mechanics and performance. He went to P3 Premier Pitching Performance facility in St. Louis over that winter.
To hear Means tell it, that performance facility did a lot more for him than point him in the right direction to make a few improvements.
“It saved my career,” Means told me recently in the Baltimore clubhouse. “I wouldn’t be here. I’d probably be sitting at home looking for a job right now if it wasn’t for that facility. I think I would have been (designated for assignment) last year if I came in looking the same as I did in 2018, where I was called up for the last seven games of the year. If I would have come into spring looking like that, I probably wouldn’t have been on the roster in spring.”
But Means doesn’t necessarily mean only his physical conditioning. He made delivery improvements too. And a pitcher who once saw his fastball range from 88 to 91 mph on the farm, was touching 93 to 95 last March.
It was quite the transformation.
“I found more consistency with my motion,” said Means. “You kind of get in sync with what you are good at, what makes you better. You kind of have a cue to come back to when you are struggling. I was more of a thrower coming up through the minors. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do with my body. It was like, ‘I’m going to throw this pitch to this spot and that was it.’ Now you kind of have a cue to get yourself back in sync.”
Means went back to the same place over this past winter. Others have asked him about the facility and if it would help them. Many big league pitchers are suddenly going to performance centers in the offseason to up their games.
“Yeah, I think so,” said Means. “I think pitchers like myself, when they were coming up from the minor leagues, were nervous about going to one, almost stayed with a do-what-got-you-there sort of mentality. I think, now that people are starting to see results and seeing that guys in their organization and guys they are facing are also going, getting themselves a competition advantage. It needed to prove itself and now it has.”
Manager Brandon Hyde said the Orioles embrace their players looking to make such improvements and encourage players to go to facilities that have good reputations and the organization has vetted to some degree.
“Absolutely, 100 percent,” Hyde said about encouraging players to go. “Each one of these guys - it’s their own careers. I like guys to go into the offseason thinking, ‘How can I get better? How can I get an edge?’ It’s going on around the league. If you’re not (going), you’re falling behind a little bit. Some of these guys have taken it upon themselves and they communicate with us about what they’re doing. I love to see that.”
Means said some pitchers go for very specific reasons. They might look to improve their velocity, their slider or their conditioning, for instance.
“Exactly,” he said. “And that is where these facilities do a great job. Most of them. There are some out there that are kind of knock-offs, I’m sure. But a lot of them are really, really individualized. They say, ‘You are good at this, you are bad at this and let’s try and get this up to average and keep doing what you do really, really well.’
“That is kind of where I was at. I had a really good fastball that I didn’t know I had. Obviously, the velo wasn’t there, but overall it was a good fastball as far as the ride (movement) went. So I knew, ‘OK, I can use this more.’ I always thought I was an off-speed guy. Now I can use the fastball more, improve the changeup and improve the curve and you start to realize, ‘OK, this is all I have to do.’”
Means, like many pitchers, had to overcome the fear that making changes could hurt him. that it could have the unintended result of making him worse or creating new problems.
“That was the risk you take,” he said. “And that was the risk I knew I was taking. I might go there and lose it all. I think, as more and more people go, they realize you are not losing anything. All you are really doing is gaining.”