He will turn 28 in April and is a veteran of just 202 big league innings. But in leading an Orioles rotation that could feature two rookies at the start - and more joining the fun late - left-hander John Means is likely to add leadership to his roles during the 2021 season.
“It’s crazy, the fact that I have two years of service time and I’m stepping into a leadership role,” he said during a Zoom interview this afternoon. “But that’s the way this team works and that’s the way it needs to be. I’m excited to take that role on. Especially with the starting rotation. It’s so up in the air and there are a lot of young kids competing. Also, some guys that have been around a while. Just to kind of more lead by example. But if they need something - I’ve been talking to quite a few guys here the first day or so and I like that role.”
Already respected for his climb from 11th-round draft pick to the top of the O’s rotation, Means ended the 2020 season pitching like an ace. He went 2-4 with a 4.53 ERA over 10 starts. But he was 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA, a .488 OPS against and a 0.63 WHIP over his last four starts. He averaged 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings in his first six starts and 11.4 over those last four. He gave up just 12 hits over 23 2/3 innings with three walks to 30 strikeouts.
“I left last year feeling a lot better than I did 2019,” Means said. “I thought I didn’t finish the year very well in 2019 and obviously the beginning of 2020 was rough. But I was really excited to finish the way I did. Just really excited to keep on with that momentum. I like the way I finished and I didn’t really work on a whole lot this offseason that was any different from the offseason before. I’m just trying to come in and pitch like I did.”
Means was leaning on a fastball that he was actually throwing at a slightly lesser velocity late in the year, but it seemed to give him more late life and movement. In his final three starts, he threw the pitch 59, 67 and 57 percent of the time.
“That was the best I had felt, ever,” he said. “Even in 2019, I don’t think I felt better than I did then. The fastball definitely helped. But the fastball was there because the mechanics were there. I slowed down a little bit and I found my lane. And once I found my lane for the heater, everything else played off that. So, yeah, the fastball is always going to be the most important pitch. Just the fact that, everything plays off that.
“I liked what it was looking like. Analytically, it looked really well with the extra velo, the extra spins. And honestly, when I tapered back just a bit, I still had that top-end velocity that I had early on, I was just sitting a little lower. Which is no problem, as long as I know I have that in the back. Just being able to compete and I can stay within myself were the biggest changes I had made at the end of the year. Just pitch like I know how to pitch.”
Means said he looks forward to talking with 2010 American League Cy Young winner Félix Hernández, who was signed to a minor league contract. They didn’t have much chance to do so during a hectic first day of camp today.
With the protocols for health and safety in place again, it was not a normal first day.
“It is just weird. The last time we were here, everyone was scattering for COVID. It was weird times. It’s a little different this year than it usually is,” Means said. “The food is all boxed up. The weight room, you can only have a certain amount of people in there. Just all the protocols. But it’s nice getting down here. I think it was negative 10 (degrees) where I was at in Kansas City when I left. So this 75 and sunny is kind of nice.”
Means is also excited about having Chris Holt as a first-year pitching coach and Darren Holmes returning to the staff, this year with the title of assistant pitching coach.
“Chris Holt, obviously he’s been here for a couple years,” Means said. “So guys are very familiar with him and Holmesy. I think it’s going to be a really good dynamic. Holt knows both sides of the ball really well. He knows the analytics and the pitching side, too, the execution part. I think that’s key, especially in the times nowadays. It’s so analytically driven that sometimes you start to lose that feel for where it’s going. I think he has a good feel for both. I think he’s able to build good relationships with guys and guys can go to him for anything. His door is wide open.”
Asked about FanGraphs.com giving the Orioles a 0.00 percent chance of making the playoffs, Means said: “I think we have a better chance than 0.0, for sure. But we’re going to try and just play. We try not to listen to the noise too much.”