The world was crashing down, and Orioles pitcher John Means was in the middle of the chaos.
First and foremost, his father Alan lost his yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer and died at the age of 58 in August.
COVID-19 was wreaking havoc across the globe, and there were questions about how Major League Baseball and other sports were going to stay safe and proceed amid the devastating pandemic.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound left-hander was also experiencing some struggles on the mound and could not find the command that had made him a Rookie of the Year candidate the year prior.
Means, however, bounced back from all of the adversity and put together a string of stellar performances to close out his season, providing added hope to the rebuilding Orioles heading into spring training in 2021.
“It was pretty tough. I knew it was approaching because he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” Means said of his father’s death. “It’s as bad as it gets. The tough performance didn’t help with it, but I was just really happy with how I finished, getting through all of that. I made some changes in the beginning of the year just with my motion and everything. And I thought I was on the right track. I just had to take my foot off the gas a little bit. I think by the end of the year, it really paid off.”
Entering the final month of the season, Means was 0-3 with an 8.10 ERA in six starts. He fully recovered from those struggles and allowed just one run in each of his final four starts, going 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA.
“I don’t know if you can pitch much better than he did his last [four] starts,” manager Brandon Hyde said at the time. “I just love that he’s attacking hitters with his fastball. His changeup is back. I like both breaking balls. You can’t sit on a pitch. He’s pitching like a top-of-the-rotation guy.”
Means finished the season 2-4 with a 4.53 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 42 strikeouts. He had one of his best performances of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays during the Orioles’ home finale Sept. 20, striking out a career-high 12 in the 2-1 victory. He also tied a franchise record with seven consecutive strikeouts, joining Sammy Stewart, who accomplished that feat in 1978.
The proper adjustments, helped by the club’s analytics, provided huge dividends.
“It started with mechanics. Being able to ride the back leg a little better down the slope and a just whole lot of different mechanical changes,” Means said. “Toward the end of the year, it was a mentality change. I [had been] kind of pitching pissed off for a lack of a better term.
“The beginning of the year, I was a little tight, tense and I had a tendency to really pull the ball. Every time I would go away with a fastball it would end up over the plate and every time I tried to go in, it would go too far in. So, I just kind of loosened up and was not as tense. It really helped me a lot.”
Ideally, the 2021 MLB season will look a lot different from this past year, with teams getting back to a normal spring training and a 162-game schedule.
The Orioles are already looking a little different. Chris Holt will have an expanded role as the club’s primary pitching coach, replacing Doug Brocail, who held the job for the past two seasons. Holt will also maintain his title as director of pitching. Means said Brocail was a “father figure” to him but that he also has a tight bond with Holt.
“Holt and I have a really good relationship,” Means said. “We can speak for hours on this stuff. He’s been around and had success with the organization. In the last couple of years, he’s really turned around the pitchers in the minor leagues.
“Guys are really familiar with him. I’ll miss Brocail. He was a great guy. Me and Holt get along really well too. I think it will be a pretty seamless transition.”
The Orioles’ rotation will also look different in 2021. While Means will stay at the top of the Orioles’ starting rotation, he will likely be joined by Alex Cobb, Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer. Bruce Zimmermann will likely have a shot to battle for that fifth spot with other young arms and veteran free-agent signings in spring training.
“We’re going to be pretty good coming up this year,” Means said. “We really have high hopes for a lot of guys on the team. Just talking starting pitchers with Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, Dean Kremer, those guys came up and were able to have some success.
“I was really impressed with the mentality these guys came up with. They just had no fear. They were going right at guys, punching tickets. That’s the biggest thing about being a big leaguer: mentality.”
Ideally, the next time any of these players pitch at Camden Yards, there will be fans in the seats and the game will have returned to normal after the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s going to be different, especially if we have fans,” Means said. “I told those guys you’re going to have two different debuts — one without fans, and that debut with fans is like no other. It’s a nice little stepping stone for them this past season. Coming into this season, they have a lot of confidence and they know their stuff can play. I’m really excited about how our team is looking.”
In the meantime, Means is working out at his Kansas home. His wife is expecting a baby before the end of the year, so his family is quarantined. Means is doing his work in a home gym in preparation for traveling to Sarasota, Fla., in February.
He has already set some goals, including improving his curveball, which he threw 12.6 percent of the time in 2020, according to Baseball Info Solutions.
“Just getting the strikeouts with the swings and misses toward the end was something I had been looking for,” Means said. “My goal, especially for next year, is to get a little more swings and misses. I can get to two strikes pretty well. It’s putting guys away that sometimes is an issue and causes some high pitch counts.”
Most of all, Means and the rest of the players are just looking to get back to some normalcy after a tumultuous 2020. Means is confident the Orioles are laying the foundation for long-term success.
The 2020 season “was just a couple of months. It didn’t feel like a whole, real season,” Means said. “Obviously, the way I pitched at the end of the season, I was really hoping we could play another 100 games. It wasn’t the case. It was weird. The hole I put myself in at the beginning of the year is hard to climb out with just 60 games. It was strange. I hope we never have to go through that again.”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles