The last player to make the Opening Day roster for the worst team in baseball just three months ago is now an MLB All-Star.
John Means can hardly believe it either.
“I was sitting there and I said ‘You’re joking, this isn’t that funny,” Means told MLB.com after finding out about his selection to the 2019 All-Star Game.
His reaction is hardly surprising. Means was never supposed to be the ace of a staff, or an organization’s lone All-Star representative. Even in Baltimore, the All-Star push surrounded Trey Mancini, not Means.
As noted above, Means barely made this year’s team out of camp. He was never a prospect with much pedigree, drafted out of West Virginia in the 11th round of the 2014 MLB Draft. Players picked that late are often lucky to make it to the upper minors; now Means is dominating the majors.
Means made one appearance on MLB Pipeline’s annual prospect rankings, debuting in 2017 at number 29.
To be clear, that was 29th-best in a poorly-rated Orioles farm system, not 29th overall in baseball. And by 2018, he had already fallen back off the list.
A player who never made a single minor league All-Star Game is now headed to the Midsummer Classic at the highest possible level. It’s the culmination of a journey no one saw coming. And yet, it’s also a beginning of sorts. Means is only a rookie after all, which adds to his feat.
He is now the first rookie pitcher to make the All-Star team for the Orioles since 1960, just six seasons after the franchise originally came to Baltimore. Hall of Famer Mike Mussina didn’t do it. Hall of Famer Jim Palmer didn’t do it. John Means did.
How great has Means been in 2019? Thanks to an inauspicious one-game debut in 2018, Means’ Wins Above Replacement this season (3.2) is actually greater than his career WAR (3.1). He’s 7-4, with a 2.50 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP.
If he had pitched enough innings to qualify, his ERA would rank third in the American League, just 0.1 away from first.
Means doesn’t throw with much velocity, but the peripherals highlight a modern breakout archetype. His fastball spin rate is well above average, as is his hard-hit rate. And rather than force his fastball, he has also learned to lean heavily on his best pitch: a putaway changeup that rates as the eighth-best in all of baseball, according to Fangraphs.
It all tells the story of a pitcher who’s taken well to the analytically-driven approach of the new regime in Baltimore. And now, after a brilliant first half to his rookie season, he’s being rewarded for his hard work.
The Orioles are required to have an All-Star representative, but don’t mistake his lack of preseason expectations for an undeserving candidate. John Means has objectively been one of the American League’s best pitchers in 2019.
Just because not even Means himself saw it coming hasn’t made it any less impressive, or fun, to watch. If the Orioles are ever going to pull themselves out of baseball’s cellar, they’re going to need to unearth a hidden gem or two.
It appears they’ve done just that with their 26-year-old rookie pitcher. And it clearly, ahem, “Means” a whole lot to both the player, and the organization who gave him a chance.
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