John Means’ All-Star rookie season in 2019 was built on the back of extra work remaking his delivery, adding velocity and developing a baffling change-up.
It only made sense, then, that more reinvention would follow to try and make his sophomore season even better.
But with a bigger fastball and unsuccessful efforts to feature his breaking ball leading to an uneven 2020, the Orioles’ top starter is entering spring training with a back-to-basics approach that made his four final starts of last season some of the best of his career.
The only new development seems to be his fatherhood-inspired mustache.
“I think John has had a great offseason,” manager Brandon Hyde said Wednesday. “He’s coming to camp ready. I saw him throw today. He looks fantastic. But I think that he’s going to be the John Means that you saw the last handful of starts and who he was in ’19.
“I think that he was just over-amped last year coming in, and was just trying a little too hard and doing some things he hadn’t done before, and I think he recognized that and got back to the pitcher that he knows he is. I think you’ll see that this year.”
When Means was trying to break out of a funk in 2020, a season in which he missed his Opening Day start because of arm soreness and lost his father, Alan, to pancreatic cancer, Hyde gave him a tough-love talk about getting back to the pitcher who was a rare bright spot for the rebuilding Orioles a season earlier.
Means had four starts remaining after that meeting. In them, he allowed four earned runs in 23 2-3 innings with 30 strikeouts and a 0.634 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched).
“I left last year feeling a lot better than I did in 2019,” Means said, comparing last year with his rookie season in which he had a 3.60 ERA and was the Orioles’ lone All-Star. “I thought I didn’t finish the year very well in 2019, and obviously the beginning of 2020 was rough, and I was really excited to finish the way I did and just really excited to keep on with that momentum.”
Still, Means feels like the work he did to prepare for 2020 ultimately paid off.
“At the end of 2019, I didn’t’ feel very good, and I felt like there were some things that I needed,” Means said. “I feel like in 2020, I addressed those issues. It obviously didn’t work in the beginning, but once I stepped back a little bit those last four games, those things that I worked on really came to fruition.
“I liked the way I finished, and I didn’t really work on a whole lot this offseason that was any different from what I had done the offseason before. I’m just trying to come in and pitch like I did.”
By some measures, Means was quite unlucky in his abbreviated 2020. He was one of 14 pitchers in the big leagues with at least 40 innings who had a WHIP below 1.00, but his ERA was a full run higher than any of the other 13 with that distinction thanks to a high home run rate of 2.5 per nine innings. In a full 2019 season, he allowed 1.3 per nine innings.
Those home runs were untimely as well. Seventeen of the 22 runs he allowed last season came on home runs, and though he allowed one in each of his last four starts, each was a solo home run. The grand slam he allowed to Luke Voit in the first inning of his first start of the season put him in quite a hole.
Turning his season around, Means said, came down to finding his mechanics and sticking with them.
“Once I found my lane for the heater, everything else played off that,” he said.
Leaving Baltimore to go back home for Kansas City at the end of the season, Means vowed to stay that course. That means the only major change for the Orioles’ presumptive Opening Day starter was his new fatherhood, as he and his wife, Caroline, had their first child, McCoy. That permanent life alteration spawned one that might not last as long: a mustache.
“It just felt right, once I had McCoy, my little boy, I just felt like the mustache needed to come,” Means said. “We’ll see if it sticks.”
Key dates for the Orioles’ preseason preparations in Sarasota, Florida:
Sunday: Position players report
Monday: First full-squad workout
Feb. 28: First exhibition game vs. Pittsburgh Pirates