John Means’ path back to the majors, where the Orioles are hoping his All-Star talent can help bolster their playoff chances, has traversed the same personal growth path he followed to get there to begin with.
All across his stops — first in Sarasota and now in Bowie — Means has worked with coaches who helped him develop into an All-Star at Premier Pitching and Performance (P3), a St. Louis-area facility where he spent the winter before the 2019 season building velocity and launching himself to the top of the Orioles’ rotation.
There was time earlier in his rehab with Mitch Plassmeyer, now the Orioles’ minor league pitching coordinator, who was a product of P3. He skipped over High-A Aberdeen — where P3 coach Austin Meine runs the pitching staff — to make at least a pair of starts at Double-A Bowie under pitching coach Forrest Herrmann, who Means worked closely with that winter at the facility before Herrmann took a job with the Seattle Mariners.
(The second of those starts, on Tuesday night, was a not-all-that-unexpected bump in the road: Means pitched an inning and a third, giving up four earned runs on three hits and two walks, though he did strike out four.)
The group spent time together in Sarasota during the winter, and found themselves eating lunch, marveling at the happenstance of them reuniting with the Orioles all those years later.
“Who would have thought this would have happened in 2018 when I’m throwing 83 in a bullpen and trying to make it to the big leagues?” Means told me in spring training. “It’s just cool. It’s been surreal. It’s just awesome seeing the climb of these guys, and they deserve it so much.”
Means, who is working his way back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction with the expectation that he can pitch in the majors in September, would be pitching in the big leagues five years on from his initial trip to P3, where former teammates Jon Keller and Michael Kelly had gone before.
With his season at Triple-A Norfolk finished, Means went home to the Kansas City area and had his initial screening at P3. Then, when the Orioles ran low on pitchers in the final week of the season, he was surprisingly summoned to Boston to pitch after two weeks off.
“I went there after the season in ’18, knowing that I needed some extra velo, and I did my whole assessment,” he said. “I had never done that before, and I was like throwing as hard as I could and I was throwing like 83, 84 [mph], indoors. It was just miserable. But I go in, I say, ‘Look, obviously I’m a command guy or I wouldn’t throw this slow and still be playing, but I just really want some velo. I just want to try and test it out.’ That was what they did well, they broke that down, they said, ‘This is what you do.’ There were 100 different things. My mechanics were wrong, but I just kind of went there. I ended up getting called up a week after I’d gone in, and then pitched, got rocked in Boston and started my offseason program.”
The Means who made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster the following spring, seemingly out of nowhere, was a different pitcher than the one the Orioles summoned from his couch to pitch in the majors the previous September. He was up to 95 mph with his fastball and averaging in the low-90s, a stark contrast from the high-80s he’d been previously, and also added a swing-and-miss changeup that helped propel him to All-Star status that season.
He described the Orioles’ farm system in the preceding years as “a system in the minors that had been there for a while that was like, ‘This is all you need to do to make it to the big leagues: throw down in the zone and locate well. You don’t need velo or nasty breaking balls to get to the big leagues.’”
There wasn’t much innovation.
While he was in Bowie, Cleveland’s Double-A team came in and the pitchers were throwing weighted balls against the outfield wall, a drill designed to build arm strength. From across the diamond, Means recalled his reaction: “What is that? What are they doing?”
Eventually, he found out what some of those cutting-edge organizations like Cleveland, Houston, Tampa Bay, and the Los Angeles Dodgers were doing to help develop pitchers. He described his program at P3 as one designed to get him back throwing with natural mobility and rotation and lessening the robotic nature of it. The results, obviously, paid off.
Now, a generation of Orioles pitchers receive the same benefits on a broader scale from the same crew Means worked with five years ago.
“They’re very humble guys and just love the sport,” he said. “That’s what drew the Orioles to them — they’re just obsessed with this game and love breaking it down and getting as good as they can at learning about it.”
Means, who with his extended time rehabbing in Florida in the offseason and spring, and now his rehab tour of the affiliates, is getting a full picture of what it’s like to be in the organization as a young pitcher, has a hint of envy at what they get to do — and not just because of the people involved.
“You see how much it’s turned around in the years that I’ve been here,” Means said. “It’s crazy to look at what these guys are doing, the information these guys are getting. It makes me a little bit jealous, to be honest with you, that I couldn’t get this information when I was coming up. … We’re making all the right moves.”