John Means’ first two major-league outings couldn’t have been more different.
Means made his big-league debut on Sept. 26, 2018 against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, allowing five runs in 3.1 innings during a 19-3 loss for an Orioles team that was barreling toward a 47-115 record that season. It was an unexpected appearance, too. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound left-hander had returned home to Kansas following the minor-league season in early September only to later be told to report to Sarasota, Fla., to stay in shape in case the big-league team needed another arm — which it eventually did.
Several months later, Means performed well enough during spring training to make the Opening Day roster in 2019. He was initially tasked with giving the club length out of the bullpen, and his first appearance came in the third game of the season on March 31, 2019 against the New York Yankees in the Bronx.
The outing didn’t start particularly well after he entered in relief of Dylan Bundy with two outs and the bases loaded in the fourth inning. He walked Brett Gardner, forcing in a run. He gave up a single to Aaron Judge that drove in two more. But then he settled down, striking out Giancarlo Stanton to end the inning. After that, he pitched three innings of one-run ball and struck out four more as part of a 7-5 Orioles win.
What made the first two outings of Means’ career so different? Well, a devastating changeup, for one. During the spring of 2019, Means tweaked how he threw the pitch with the help of Chris Holt, who was hired by general manager Mike Elias in late 2018 to be the club’s minor-league pitching coordinator. Means tried throwing his new changeup for the first time in a game against the Yankees.
“I’ve never been a changeup-first guy, and so when I started throwing that and getting swings and misses, I was a little confused but I kept throwing it,” Means recalled. “I’m like, ‘Are they going to keep swinging and missing? Is this happening?’ And it was just happening over and over and over again. It was kind of an out-of-body experience. It was very surreal.”
Means joined the starting rotation that April, went on to represent the Orioles in the 2019 All-Star Game and is now the ace of Baltimore’s staff. Elsewhere in 2019, Orioles minor-league pitching made huge strides, with Holt’s fresh philosophies providing big early returns. Holt, who turns 42 in April, is now the Orioles’ big-league pitching coach and the organization’s director of pitching after a post-playing-career odyssey that spans nearly two decades.
Means, who turns 28 in April, stands out as an early example of the type of pitcher the club hopes to produce as it looks to eventually compete in the rugged American League East.
“He was very open, very receptive to anything and everything we could offer and on his own timeline was able to implement some things in 2019 that he was able to use to his advantage,” Holt said. “… As far as the combination of a self-made guy who owns his routine and owns his work and also was enthusiastic about using information to his advantage, he’s kind of the epitome of the blend that really works.”
West Virginia baseball coach Randy Mazey needed talent, and he needed it quickly. Mazey was hired by the school in June 2012, and the 2013 season would mark the Mountaineers’ first season in the Big 12. His assistant saw Means pitch in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League in upstate New York soon after being hired and immediately liked what he saw out of the left-hander.
Means had been taken by the Atlanta Braves in the 46th round of the 2011 MLB Draft out of Gardner Edgerton High School in Kansas, but he opted to attend Fort Scott Community College, where he pitched in 2012. That summer, Means received interest from West Virginia, Nebraska and Wichita State, but Mazey was the only coach who offered Means the opportunity to join his program right away instead of waiting a year. Means also liked that he would have the chance to pitch close to home during Big 12 play thanks to series at Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Means signed with the Mountaineers on his visit to West Virginia, the only visit he took during the recruiting process, and ended up pitching for the Mountaineers from 2013-2014.
“He’s just a super kid, very mild-mannered, super competitive but not outwardly. He’s not a yeller and a screamer by any means,” Mazey said. “But [he] just had a really, really professional approach to everything he did, whether it be his bullpens or his long-toss day or on game day how he would approach his pregame stuff.”
What Mazey called the “shining moment” of Means’ Mountaineer career came during a midweek game against North Carolina in 2014. The contest was arranged about 48 hours before first pitch after the Tar Heels’ original midweek opponent canceled. Mazey chose Means, his Sunday starter, to face what was considered at the time to be one of the top teams in the nation.
Means delivered nine innings of one-run, three-hit ball in front of professional scouts in Chapel Hill, N.C., less than three months before the draft.
“I was nervous, so nervous. I was shaking a little bit,” Means said. “It was outside the Big 12. It was outside of what I was used to. It was North Carolina, this great powerhouse school. I went out and kind of everything was clicking for me. I started rolling. Nine innings later, I gave up one run and it was probably the best start of my whole college career.”
“They All Raved About Him”
It was the summer of 2004, and Dave Barnett, the longtime head coach of Flagler College’s Division II baseball program, needed a pitching coach. He knew Chris Holt, the command-and-control artist who threw six different pitches at Flagler (St. Augustine, Fla.) from 2001-2002, wanted to get into coaching.
In fact, Holt already was coaching. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 21st round of the 2002 MLB Draft, threw in 15 games for Short-A Williamsport and was released after extended spring training the following year. Holt had worked Flagler’s baseball camps during his time with the Saints, and after his brief stint in pro ball, he played and coached in Austria.
Holt was visiting a friend in Germany when Barnett called that friend to connect with Holt. Barnett offered Holt the job as pitching coach. Holt returned to Flagler in the fall of 2004 and coached there through the spring of 2007.
“I, to this day, have no idea how he tracked down where I was, who I was with and how to get his number,” Holt said.
Barnett noted Holt had experimented with new methods for improvement while he was pitching in Europe and integrated the effective ones into his instruction; Barnett said the methods were new at the time but commonplace now. For example, Barnett recalled Holt using weighted wrist bands in order to build arm strength and increase velocity. Flagler’s pitchers responded well to Holt.
“[Holt] would really work with the guys, and he had a passion for it. He truly did,” Barnett said. “You talk to players. You say, ‘Hey, what do you think about Coach Holt?’ They all raved about him. He had their attention. They were buying into what he was doing.”
Holt, meanwhile, learned how to run practices, implement a development plan for players and manage a game from Barnett, the head coach at Flagler since 1988. He learned a lot from him as a pitcher from 2001-2002, too.
“When I went to Flagler, one thing that became pretty clear with Barnett was that you’ve never arrived,” Holt said, “and [that] this game is about what are you doing next … to go perform, because if you don’t get it done, you’re not going to play. Honestly, that was pretty important — just having the heat on to go perform consistently.”
Barnett wasn’t the first coach to make an impression on Holt. During Holt’s high school days in Maine, he played legion ball one summer in the late ’90s under Mike D’Andrea, a right-handed pitcher in the Atlanta Braves’ system from 1992-1995.
D’Andrea said he was a “pretty intense” coach at that point in his life, something that Holt welcomed. D’Andrea remembered Holt’s inquisitive nature and mental toughness in particular.
“Nobody asked me questions as much and as often as Chris,” D’Andrea said. “He would ask questions like, ‘When you were with the Braves, what did you …? When you were at UMaine, how did you …?’ He would just ask me [questions] constantly, and I wish I could remember specific questions but there were so many of them.”
After his junior season at West Virginia, Means was drafted by the Orioles in the 11th round of the 2014 MLB Draft. He had mixed results throughout his first five seasons in the Orioles’ farm system, working with an 88-91 mph fastball and, in the words of Means, an “OK changeup” and an “OK curveball.” Thus, he had to get by on changing speeds and locating effectively.
Means stalled out at Double-A Bowie, pitching in 53 games for the Baysox from 2016-2018. After being sent back to Bowie to begin the 2018 season, he spoke with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Caroline about whether he had a future in the game. However, he was called up to Triple-A Norfolk in 2018, made 19 starts for the Tides and pitched in Fenway Park that September.
By then, he had started to learn about himself as a pitcher; pitching coaches Alan Mills, Kennie Steenstra and Mike Griffin helped him realize his fastball played well up in the zone. He also knew he had to dive headfirst into the new-age, data-driven approach to improvement. That offseason, he worked out at St. Louis-based Premier Pitching and Performance for the first time.
“From each player’s perspective, they all obviously have something that they want to accomplish,” P3 CEO and co-founder Josh Kesel said. “For John, I think part of what would lead him to think that way was [his] velocity was down. Velocity enhancement, I would say, is one of the lowest-hanging fruits for us.”
For Kesel, that meant introducing Means to drills designed to build arm strength — such as using PlyoCare balls as part of a throwing program — to get the most out of the pitcher’s 6-foot-3 frame. Kesel also worked to create a workout schedule for Means so he was not, as Kesel said, “double-taxing” his arm while preparing for a big workload the following season.
“We’re not going to go and throw a bullpen and then crush a heavy upper-body day in the weight room,” Kesel said.
For Means, P3 also served as an introduction in how to utilize modern technology to improve as a pitcher. That was especially critical considering what awaited him when he reported to Sarasota for spring training for the first time under the leadership of new GM Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde.
Holt, of course, was also new. After his time at Flagler, Holt stayed in Florida and became the head coach of the freshman team at Nease High School (2008) and later the pitching coach at Ponte Vedra High School (2009-2011). He then worked with pitchers at the Winning Inning — a since-closed Christian baseball academy based in Clearwater, Fla. — from 2012-2013 before being hired by the Houston Astros. He served as a minor-league pitching coach from 2014-2017 and the assistant minor-league pitching coordinator in 2018.
Holt also analyzed draft-eligible pitchers for Houston’s scouting department from 2015-2018, when Elias was the Astros’ scouting director. Elias made Holt his minor-league pitching coordinator shortly after landing the Orioles GM job in November 2018.
“To get an opportunity to head up a program for an organization that has such a rich history and a great fan base … it was an opportunity to really implement some fun and effective methods,” Holt said.
Data To Back Up A Plan
The Orioles won the most games in the American League from 2012-2016, but their struggles in developing pitching were well-documented. Jake Arrieta posted a 5.46 ERA for the Orioles from 2010-2013 only to win the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 and help the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in 2016. They traded away Zach Davies, Josh Hader and Eduardo Rodriguez for immediate help at the big-league level while they were in win-now mode.
They got mixed results out of Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Bundy, the No. 4 pick of the 2011 MLB Draft, dealt with myriad injuries during his ascent to the majors and posted a 4.69 ERA for the Orioles from 2016-2019 before being dealt to the Los Angeles Angels. Gausman, the No. 4 pick of the 2012 MLB Draft, had a 4.22 ERA from 2013-2018 before being dealt to the Atlanta Braves. Both have enjoyed some success away from Baltimore.
“I think my biggest frustration would be that we didn’t get some of those results from them when they were with the organization,” former Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said of Bundy and Gausman. “We had a number of pitchers that we brought in that didn’t do as well as we had hoped, and when they left, they did better after they left the organization. We could’ve done a better job.”
Duquette, however, left Elias, Hyde and Holt plenty of quality arms to mold after his departure. Under Duquette, the Orioles had drafted Keegan Akin, Michael Baumann, DL Hall, Zac Lowther and Grayson Rodriguez in recent years and traded for Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann in 2018.
Throughout 2019, the Orioles worked to educate pitchers about developmental plans that were unique to each individual pitcher. That meant incorporating modern technology into each pitcher’s development.
“I saw a plan and data to back up that plan, which I had never seen since 2014,” Means said of his memories of spring training in 2019. “There was always a plan for everybody to do, but there wasn’t a whole lot of data to back it up.”
Clubs across baseball use TrackMan and Rapsodo devices to deliver precise data — such as velocity, spin rate and horizontal and vertical break — on every pitch thrown and high-speed video equipment like Edgertronic cameras to capture a pitcher’s mechanics and the flight of the ball. Accurate data allows pitchers to learn which of their weapons are most effective. High-speed video cameras show pitchers how the ball comes out of their hand in slow motion.
Taken together, the technology provides pitchers clues about which pitches will yield the best results in competition and what mechanical tweaks — such as a pitcher’s grip — will improve the quality of a pitch.
“We’re not doing anything anybody else isn’t doing,” Holt said.
For Means, Holt’s suggestions during the spring of 2019 paired well with his increased fastball velocity. Thanks to his work at P3, he was 92-95 mph in camp; he hadn’t hit 94 mph at any point in his life prior to that. Means credited Holt with teaching him how to throw the new changeup he debuted in 2019 as well as the curveball that helped him finish the 2020 season strong.
“I think every pitch that I throw now has been changed because of him in a better way,” Means said.
What makes Holt so effective is his ability to interpret the feedback that comes from new-age technology and explain what it all means to pitchers in an easy-to-understand way, according to FanGraphs national writer Kevin Goldstein, who worked in the Astros’ organization from 2012-2020.
“Every team understands spin rate, understands pitch efficiency, understands pitch shapes, all that kind of stuff,” Goldstein said. “… There’s no amazing advantage there. Now all the sudden the advantage comes in not understanding the data itself but being able to implement it. That’s always been one of Chris’ strongest suits.”
On The Same Page
The Orioles’ pitching numbers improved across the board in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the minor-league season in 2020. Major League Baseball teams played a 60-game schedule, and each club had an alternate site — for the Orioles it was Prince George’s Stadium, the home of the Bowie Baysox — where big-league reinforcements could stay ready and prospects could receive instruction.
Two pitchers who took steps forward in 2019 and threw at the alternate site in 2020 are right-hander Michael Baumann and lefty Zac Lowther, both of whom were early-round picks by the Orioles in 2017. Baumann had a 3.12 ERA in 124.0 innings at High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie in 2019, even throwing a no-hitter at the latter stop. Lowther had a 2.55 ERA in 148.0 innings at Bowie in 2019.
Both were successful prior to Holt taking command of the organization’s minor-league pitching, but each pitcher sensed a change in 2019.
“ was my biggest year of growth,” Lowther said, “and I think a lot of guys can agree with that because that was one of the first years that we were all on the same page throughout the organization and being able to understand what our goal was and give every individual pitcher a plan to get there.”
“You’re not hearing different things from all over the place,” Baumann said. “You’re not hearing something different from one guy versus the next. Everyone knows what you’ve been doing and they know what you need to do, so that’s kind of the biggest thing.”
Goldstein served as the pro scouting coordinator (2012-2013), director of pro scouting (2013-2017) and special assistant to the GM (2017-2020) with Houston. He said having everyone on the same page is probably the biggest challenge for teams in player development, especially since a club’s affiliates are often spread out all over the country.
Goldstein explained that it’s not unusual for a pitcher, for example, to hear from a coach at one level that he needs to elevate his fastball and hear from another coach at the next level that he needs to bust hitters inside.
“You can’t have that, but it happens all the time,” Goldstein said. “It’s a real hard thing to avoid, so it’s very important to have everyone using the same principles and accentuating the same positives and eliminating the same negatives as far as the player’s development goes.”
However, it’s still important for coaches to be themselves while sharing the same approach to a pitcher’s development, according to Holt.
“The number one thing with partnering with players is partnering with a person before the player,” Holt said. “If you’re not yourself, it’s going to be difficult to develop a working relationship with somebody.”
“The Future Of The Organization”
Since taking over as Orioles GM, Mike Elias has worked to bolster the organization’s pitching depth. Elias hasn’t focused on pitchers in the draft, selecting just one pitcher in the first 10 rounds of the 2019 draft and one in the five-round 2020 draft. However, he has targeted pitching in trades, like when he dealt Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels for pitching prospects Kyle Bradish, Kyle Brnovich, Isaac Mattson and Zach Peek.
Being on the same page in terms of the development of pitchers starts with player acquisition, according to MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd, who was the GM of the Colorado Rockies from 1999-2014.
“When you visualize the type of pitching you want at the big-league level,” O’Dowd said, “that visualization has to be cemented into the mind of your talent evaluators, both in the amateur ranks and the professional ranks to identify, ‘That’s an Oriole pitcher and we want to add him to our organization if and when we have the ability to do that.'”
The Orioles are trying to acquire and develop pitchers who can succeed in a rugged environment. In 2019 — the last time teams played 162 games — Camden Yards rated as the fifth-best run-scoring environment for right-handed hitters and ninth-best for left-handed hitters, according to Baseball Prospectus.
O’Dowd said a few traits can be spotted in pitchers from an early age that will allow them to succeed in any environment, namely an ability to throw strikes with a rhythmic delivery, a power fastball and a feel for spinning a breaking ball.
“That’s a pitcher that’s going to work in Camden Yards and anywhere — certainly still going to be giving up home runs, but home runs unto itself is not the issue,” O’Dowd said. “It’s the two- and three-run home runs that are an issue because of the walks that you put on in front of them.”
The American League East also poses challenges annually. Prior to the shortened 2020 season, the New York Yankees won 100 and 103 games in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The Tampa Bay Rays have created a player-development machine and represented the American League in the 2020 World Series. The Toronto Blue Jays made the playoffs last year and boast a quality young core. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2018.
That leaves the Orioles chasing a high standard, but they’ve reached it before.
“There’s no question that the American League East is challenging, particularly because you have the two behemoths in the East and the DH,” Dan Duquette said, referring to the Yankees and Red Sox. “It’s a grind, but that shouldn’t stop you from developing pitchers. … When we led the American League in wins for those five years, we had figured out what pitchers could be successful and how to defend. We did it as good as anyone in the league.”
It was under Duquette that the Orioles drafted John Means out of West Virginia in 2014, and with Mike Elias, Brandon Hyde and Chris Holt leading the charge, there may be a lot more pitchers like John Means on the way to help lead the next era of winning baseball in Baltimore.
“I think that what they’re doing is setting us up for a lot of success in the future,” Zac Lowther said. “As a team and individuals, they’re giving us every chance to go out there and be able to compete and dominate against the AL East. The AL East is one of the most powerful divisions in all of baseball, so I’m really excited that they’re taking the time to invest in us in the minors and have us be the future of the organization.”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles, West Virginia Athletics, Flagler Athletics, Premier Pitching and Performance and William Vaughan/Bowie Baysox