John Means was supposed to be the Orioles’ Opening Day starter last season. But like so much else in 2020, things didn’t go as planned.
The season was put on hold because of the pandemic on March 12th and players had to rush to get ready when they regathered for summer training. By the time the July 24th opener came against Boston at Fenway Park, Means had to sit it out because of arm fatigue.
This year, the Orioles will open again against Boston at Fenway Park on April 1st, and Means again has been tabbed the Opening Day starter.
“Both years being named the Opening Day starter feels like such a blessing,” Means said. “So humbling. I take every day as it comes. It’s such a cool experience that I will, hopefully, make this time around.
“It’s unbelievable. If you had told me this three years ago, I would have told you you’re crazy, and now that it’s set in, it’s become more real, and I look forward to it.”
Means, 27, is the Orioles’ No. 1 starter but he hasn’t pitched that many major league games. In 42 games, five in relief, Means is 14-15 with a 3.97 ERA. He says he has a lot to learn.
“Just be more consistent,” Means said. “Consistency every five days, being the same pitcher over and over that I know I can be. That’s the name of the game. That’s part of growing up in this game, becoming an older guy in the clubhouse, like I am in this clubhouse, you’ve just got to be more consistent, and that’s going to be the goal this year.”
In Means’ first two seasons, he had veteran pitchers Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb to lean on. Now, he is a veteran, especially to pitchers such as Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and Bruce Zimmermann, who made their major league debuts last season.
“I’m going to always be here for them if they have any questions,” Means said. “But with the guys that we have, I have a lot of confidence that they’re doing really well for themselves. There’s definitely going to be some times where I have to step in and guide them through the struggles because I’ve seen a lot these past couple of years.
“I’ve been through a lot. I’ve had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I think that offers a lot to these young kids. I look forward to doing it.”
Means was never in anyone’s top prospect list. He was an 11th-round draft pick by the Orioles in 2014, watching David Hess (5th round), Tanner Scott (6th) and Stevie Wilkerson (8th) get picked ahead of him.
Another pitcher who was chosen ahead of him, Pat Connaughton (4th round), played briefly with Means at Short Season-A Aberdeen before embarking on a successful NBA career with the the Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks.
Means made his way through the Orioles’ farm system as what manager Brandon Hyde referred to as “an organizational player” — a pitcher who wasn’t a prospect but was a useful player on the Orioles’ minor league teams.
In his five minor league seasons, Means was 35-41 with a 3.83 ERA. The lack of attention motivated him.
“It definitely did,” Means said. “It was also kind of nice, 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 prospects do. I was able to stay in the shadows and develop, 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 handle it.”
Means is a four-pitch pitcher with a fastball, change, slider and curveball.
“It’s been huge, the way the curveball came on last year,” Means said. “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, keep them on their toes. If you don’t have a breaking pitch, it’s going to be hard to pitch in this league. Having that come along has been big for me.”
Hyde wants Means to work on putting away hitters with two strikes.
“There’s a lot of foul balls,” Means said. “Honestly, it comes down to execution. I’m good at getting to two strikes, but it’s just putting guys away. It’s something I thought the last couple of games of , I felt like I was doing well. It’s really just trying to stay attacking.
“It’s that put-away pitch, that last pitch. You need that swing and miss that I’ve got to take care of, and just limit the foul balls. I think most of the year last year, I was leaving a lot of balls over the middle of the plate, and that was part of the reason. With two strikes, not going right down the middle, but working the edges and just executing.”
Means made his major league debut on September 26, 2018 at Fenway Park. That day, he allowed five runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Red Sox.
“Fenway will always hold a special place in my heart,” Means said. “That was my debut. It was such a cool experience then, even though I didn’t do well … I love pitching there every time we go, I really do. It’s just the park, the field, the atmosphere. I know we won’t have quite the atmosphere we’re used to. It’s still going to be a pretty cool experience.”