As John Means enters his sophomore season in the major leagues, there’s a much different feel this time around than last year, and it’s not just because of the delayed start to the shortened season.
“I’m the Opening Day starter for the Baltimore Orioles, and if you would’ve told me that two years ago, I would’ve laughed in your face,” Means told the media Saturday afternoon after manager Brandon Hyde officially informed him he would be taking the mound in the season opener against the Boston Red Sox, the very team he made his MLB debut against not even two years ago.
Over the course of his rookie season last year, Means worked his way up from a middle-man reliever to the ace of Baltimore’s rotation. In the first half of the 2019 season as a starter, he had a 2.50 ERA, the second-lowest ERA in the American League before the All-Star break, including a remarkable month of June with a 1.71 ERA, allowing just four runs over four starts. Though he struggled a bit in the second half of the season, he ended 2019 with a 3.60 ERA, including a 2.74 ERA at home, the second-best in franchise history for a first- or second-year Oriole. In addition to his All-Star selection, he came in second for AL Rookie of the Year voting. Most importantly though, he secured his spot as the No. 1 starter in a major league starting rotation.
His emergence as one of the top pitchers in the American League was surprising, to say the least, though no one was more surprised by his MLB success in 2019 than Means himself. “I’m the last person everybody who has played with me and against me would’ve thought is a major league All-Star,” he told the Baltimore Sun last July after his selection to the 2019 All-Star Game.
His faith in his career as a professional baseball player had been waning for the last couple of years. In 2018, he contemplated retiring from the sport altogether. In his MLB debut in September 2018 against the Red Sox, Means pitched 3.1 innings out of the bullpen in a disastrous appearance allowing five runs, all earned, including one home run, striking out only four batters total. It was his only major league appearance in 2018.
Before the start of the 2019 season, he created a LinkedIn profile for himself as a backup plan, just in case baseball did not work out. As with every aspiring pro baseball player, due to the time commitment and dedication required to baseball, his work experience was rather limited. His only two jobs listed were “Professional Baseball Player” and “Substitute Teacher,” as he spent some time in 2016 and 2017 as a substitute teacher at the kindergarten and elementary level to earn some extra cash for rent. At 26 years old, it was time for him to seriously consider if baseball was the most viable option for his future.
Means is one of my favorite success stories that almost didn’t happen in recent baseball history. After graduating high school, he received no college offers not just from Division I schools, but Division II and Division III as well. Though he was picked by the Atlanta Braves in the 46th round in the 2011 MLB draft, a Braves scout told Means it’d be best if he played college ball before signing. He spent one season at the junior college level playing at Fort Scott Community College then transferred to West Virginia to play D-I ball after catching the attention of the pitching coach there. After a successful junior season at WVU in 2014 with a 3.13 ERA in 12 starts and a 6-2 record, the Orioles selected him in the 11th round of the draft later that year. Means spent five seasons in the Orioles’ minor league system, bouncing between A-ball, Double-A, and Triple-A levels from 2014 to 2018. Never considered a top prospect in the farm system, for many baseball fans, the first they even heard of him was last summer as the lone representative for the Orioles in the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland.
So how did a guy who cracked the roster initially as a reliever for a struggling Baltimore team rise to Opening Day starter in the matter of just one season? Talk to any pitcher and they’ll all tell you the same: much of their game lies in their mindset. If there are two things I’ve gathered from watching interviews with Means and speaking to those who have met him, it’s one, he’s one of the most humble guys in baseball, and two, his struggles and failures in the past have given him both the work ethic and mindset to never give up and most importantly, never get comfortable. As a matter of fact, despite all his success in his breakout season, Means said not only did he not expect to be named the Opening Day starter for 2020, he approached this season with the mindset he still had to work just as hard as he did before, back when he was just hoping to secure a spot on a major league roster.
“I think up until I get told that I’m Opening Day, I just kind of assumed I was fighting for a job. I kind of like that mentality. I like to keep that back-against-the-wall mentality and just never get comfortable. I’m constantly trying to get better and until I’m told for sure and it’s in writing and he [Hyde] tells me face to face, I’m just going to assume I’m fighting for the job.” Back in January, he told the Baltimore Sun he’d give his 2019 season a B-, overall. “I’m never really that satisfied. Gotta be better.”
Now with the 2020 season looming and 2019 no longer on his mind, it’s all about improving.
“I don’t ever want to sit back and be comfortable and just think I’ve figured it all out,” he said in March. “In this game, it’ll humble you really, really quick. I’ve been around enough guys that have had the time and have had that experience. They’re like, ‘once you think you’ve figured it out, you better keep working hard because you haven’t.’”
While he might never be a Jacob deGrom or Max Scherzer, Means’ attitude and work ethic alone has made him a name to remember. Hyde said it best, he’s a special case. “He’s dealt with a lot of things, and he’s had to earn everything that has come his way. Nothing was ever handed to John. I think that’s why there’s so much appreciation from him. That’s why he competes the way he does.”
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)