When he takes the ball a week from today at Boston, Orioles left-hander John Means can check off another box: opening day starter. A tired arm kept it from happening last July. But Means’ rise from 11th-round draft pick and overlooked prospect continues on an upward trajectory.
He followed up an All-Star nod and second-place finish for American League Rookie of the Year in 2019 with a stunning end to his 2020 season. One where Means went 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA in his last four starts. He walked three and fanned 30 over 23 2/3 innings, pitching to a WHIP of 0.63.
How did the prospect analysts miss on this guy? He was never a Baseball America top 30 prospect. MLBPipeline.com ranked him No. 29 on its O’s preseason top 30 in 2015 and 2017, and also on their end-of-season list in 2017. He was not completely overlooked.
Means will tell you now that not getting much prospect-ranking attention both motivated and, in another way, helped him.
“Yeah. Yeah, it definitely did,” he said about the slight producing motivation for him. “But it was also kind of nice too, to be honest. You’re not the face. You’re not getting interviewed from Low-A all the way to the big leagues, like some of these high (ranked) prospects do. So, I was able to kind of stay in the shadows a little bit and develop. Really focus on myself and not have to worry about the outside noise. I think that really prepared me for this time now that I am in the spotlight, to be able to handle it.”
He’s in the shadows no longer.
And in fairness to the prospect-ranking evaluators, Means got better over the years. He was pitching at Double-A over parts of three seasons, when he was 23 and 24, with a 4.34 ERA and 1.365 WHIP. He didn’t have a blazing fastball or stats to get himself much in the way of the rankings.
But beginning in 2018, Means posted a 3.48 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk and late that year made his major league debut. He improved his fastball velocity, and in the last year or two made big strides with his breaking pitches. He kept working and he just got better. He was a bit of a late bloomer. And his blooming is a benefit to the Orioles, who would love to be able to say they developed an ace out of an 11th-round draft pick. Under two different front offices.
Means said his slider and particularly his curveball took big strides last year. He threw the curveball six percent in 2019 and 12 percent last summer.
“It’s been huge,” Means said. “The way the curveball came on last year it completely changed the game. Especially in today’s game with how good all these hitters are. You can’t just have two pitches, like I did, basically, in 2019. You’ve got to be able to mix it up and keep them on their toes. It’s going to be part of it. So, if you don’t have a breaking pitch, it’s going to be hard to pitch in this league. So, having that come along has been big for me.”
And now he’s a true four-pitch pitcher who threw his fastball a lot late last season, and it featured some impressive late life. The whiff rate on his fastball last year, 29 percent, was better than for the other three of his pitches and up from 18 percent the year before. Whiff rate is the percent of times batters swing and miss divided into total swings at the pitch. In two games late last year, Means had outings with 35 and 44 percent whiff rates against his fastball.
So the path from 11th-round pick and overlooked minor league pitcher leads to the mound at Fenway Park in one week for the O’s opening day hurler.
Sometimes when you try to emerge out of a shadow, it can take a long time and feature a bumpy and winding road.