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The Precarious Case of Joe Ryan and Former College Pitchers

No players were harmed by the Lost Year more than pitchers signed out of college because of their advanced age. Can they still make it in the modern game?

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Joe Ryan is the proxy for baseball’s Lost Year. Everything else about his story is unique. A top pitching prospect for the Tampa Bay Rays, Ryan is a former water polo player and seventh-round pick and geography major out of Division II who grew up without travel ball, video games or cable while living an old-fashioned Tom Sawyer life in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods in Marin County, Calif.

Ryan is a self-described “hypermobile” athlete who meditates, trains with the movement patterns of martial artists and ultimate fighters, tinkers with breathing exercises of the extreme athlete Wim Hof—and happens to throw a mind-blowing, wickedly deceptive fastball crafted not by TrackMan but by water polo.

In 40 career minor league games, Ryan has astonishing rates of 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings and 5.2 strikeouts for every walk. On Saturday, Ryan, a starting right-handed pitcher for the Triple A Durham Bulls, struck out eight of the 17 Charlotte Knights he faced without a walk. On Sunday he was named to the United States team that plays Olympic qualifying games May 31 to June 2.

“Not sure what game I’m starting, but I’m going there to win,” Ryan says. “It’ll be an honor to wear that jersey and get to play with some studs. I hope I can pick the brains of the veterans, too.”

Mar 10, 2021; Port Charlotte, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Joe Ryan  (67) throws a pitch during the fourth inning against the Minnesota Twins  at Charlotte Sports Park.

Here is something else unusual about Ryan: He turns 25 years old next week and has thrown only 176 1/3 innings as a pro. COVID-19 wiped out the minor league season last year, fall development leagues and the first month to this one. Baseball stopped, but the clock on a pitcher’s career did not. No players were harmed by the Lost Year more than pitchers signed out of college because of their advanced age.

Ryan never has thrown more than 97 pitches in a pro game and has lasted seven innings just once. And if he makes the major leagues this year, which he should, he will not gain free agency until at least after the 2027 season, when he will be 31 years old.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Ryan says of the past year. “It’s been interesting to watch everything that’s gone on in the rest of the world. That puts everything in perspective. I was fortunate to pitch at the alternate site last year. I got an extra 60 innings over the summer. That was huge for me.”

Pitching at the alternate site in Port Charlotte, Fla., however, was not up to the development standards of true competition. Games were played in an empty minor league park with music blaring and sometimes with a missing outfielder or two. They essentially were controlled scrimmages. We won’t know for years how the Lost Year curbed or even ruined careers. (After COVID-19 wiped out the minor league season, MLB cut 43 minor league teams, bringing an end to more than 1,000 dreams in affiliated baseball.)

“I think there were some positives from last year’s environment, particularly the younger pitchers,” says Dodgers senior vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes, pointing out that 2020 draft picks, for instance, may have had an easier transition to pro ball without a grueling spring schedule. “But I think there is a reality now. [One], age for level. [Two], so much time training in pitching lab environments without the needed balance of game situations and workload. More stuff, more injuries, less feel.”

Consequence is the secret ingredient of development. Something must be on the line. Controlled scrimmages lack consequence.

The Lost Year is manifesting itself in the short term with an abundance of lousy, sloppy baseball in the minors. In Triple A East, compared to its predecessor, the 2019 International League, walks are up 16%, strikeouts are up 11% and batting average is down 25 points. If you can, imagine baseball with 16% more walks and strikeouts than Major League Baseball—that’s Triple A East.

Ryan is part of a loaded Durham team (12–6) that features infielder Wander Franco, the top prospect in baseball (.836 OPS); infielder Vidal Bruján (1.043, seven homers and seven steals); and outfielder Josh Lowe (1.075). Infielder Taylor Walls, whom Ryan calls “one of the best defensive players I’ve ever seen,” recently was promoted to replace the traded Willy Adames as the Rays’ shortstop.

“Just to watch our team take pregame defensive work is a treat,” Ryan says. “In our first series, one of the [Memphis] Cardinals said, ‘You guys are the nastiest team I’ve ever seen.’ ”

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The Rays are treating Ryan and their other starting pitchers more cautiously than position players coming off the Lost Year. Durham used eight pitchers to start its first 18 games. The pitchers averaged just 4.1 innings and 66 pitches per start.

Ryan was drafted in 2018. There were nine college pitchers selected in the first round that year, including Casey Mize, Logan Gilbert, Brady Singer, Shane McClanahan, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic, all of whom are in the big leagues. Their combined big league record is 11–24 with a 4.55 ERA.

Assuming those nine pitchers all remain healthy for the rest of this season (a big assumption), they will have accumulated an average of 216 innings in their first four pro seasons. By comparison, the 14 first-round college picks from 10 years earlier, 2008, averaged 294 innings in their first four seasons.

Ryan has thrown 176 2/3 pro innings by his 25th birthday. Lance Lynn, drafted in 2008 out of Mississippi, had logged 487 innings by the time he turned 25. Between COVID-19 and reduced workloads, young pitchers are spending more time in pitching labs than they are competing.

“As much as it sucks to have a blank year, with it comes opportunity,” Ryan says. “We’re playing baseball again. I feel like I’m ready.”

Ready for the big leagues?

“I’m staying where my feet are,” he says, “and right now they are in Durham. Next month? Who knows. To be honest, it sounds boring and cliché-ish, but it really is about keeping that same mindset of staying in the present and not getting ahead of yourself.

“When I’m in the big leagues, I’m pitching the same way I’m pitching now. It’s still one pitch at a time. Then it’s not an ‘ooh-aah’ moment.”

Like the way he throws a baseball, Ryan’s path to a top prospect is unusual. His father, Kurtis, is an extreme athlete and runner whose family has lived in Marin County for five generations. When Joe was three years old, he turned off the TV and told his dad, “Let’s play outside.” Kurtis discontinued the cable after that. Joe did not play video games until middle school, when friends introduced them to him.

By the time he was eight years old, Joe was running a grueling 7.2-mile cross-country race with his father. Father and son would go on seven-day camping trips. Kurtis arranged neighborhood sandlot games before school at 6:30 a.m. After school he would take Joe into the mountains to hunt snakes, fish or just explore the backcountry.

The family of Joe’s mother also has deep roots in the area. Her grandfather was raised at Sunny Hills Orphanage in San Anselmo. When Joe was in middle school, the orphanage grounds were transformed into a public park. Joe started and won the first baseball game played there. He did so using his great-grandfather’s glove.

“I never considered myself a baseball player first,” he says. “I played water polo year-round, even through baseball season. I’d get out of the water and then go play outside, which made pitching even more fun. Running, mountain biking, skiing, surfing … I just wanted to be outside as much as possible.”

As a senior at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, Ryan was 12–1 with a 0.76 ERA. The Giants selected him in the 39th round. He went to Cal State–Northridge instead. After a redshirt third season at Northridge caused by a lat strain, Ryan transferred to D-II Cal State–Stanislaus. (A transfer to another D-I school would have forced him to sit out another year.) At CSS, Ryan led the NCAA with 127 strikeouts while going 8–1 with a 1.65 ERA. The Rays noticed. They drafted him in the seventh round and signed him for $147,500, below the slot value of $205,200.

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The Rays are to pitching what MIT is to engineering. They not only find good arms but also bring out the best in them. In Ryan, the Rays saw a pitcher who did not throw exceptionally hard but had certain pitch and mechanical characteristics that they knew would cause hitters fits.

Ryan leverages his cross-training, “hypermobility” and water polo experience to throw his freakish fastball, which he delivers from an old-school three-part delivery in which his hands lift above his head before he kicks and drives.

“Velocity doesn’t matter as just something to chase,” he says. “I’m in the [92–94 mph] range and getting late life. It’s about getting the body in the right position and when you do that the velocity goes up. I want to be throwing as hard as I can, but at what cost? I don’t want to be throwing a hundred if it puts my body in worse position.

“It’s like [Jacob] deGrom. It’s about trying to throw as easy as he can, and the result is he’s throwing harder and harder. Makes sense to me.”

As for the three-part delivery, Ryan said he used it in high school after reading a quote from Nolan Ryan. Joe read how Tom House, Ryan’s pitching coach, gave some detailed explanation about the physics behind Nolan’s fastball, after which Nolan shot back, “The higher I lift my leg the harder I throw.”

Joe drifted away from the Nolan-like delivery at Northridge, but returned to it just before joining Stanislaus.

“Other people were all simplifying their delivery,” he says. “If other people are doing that, then I’ll do the opposite, to add another piece in there. Works for me.”

What makes Ryan’s fastball so hard to hit is how he throws it. Ryan is 6' 2" and 205 pounds, but he throws his fastball from a release point only 4.8 feet from the ground—lower than any starting pitcher in the big leagues. The average release point is 5.9 feet. He also has tremendous extension—letting the ball go well in front of his body—which reduces the distance the ball travels and adds life to it. It is a throwing motion that derives from water polo.

“In water polo you learn how to skip the ball,” he says. “I spent 10 years trying to skip the ball in water polo, and it’s the same concept as throwing a fastball: Get the shoulder in position and then let the hand work and get it out front. Throwing a baseball feels the same way. You get that zip right at the end.

“The ball just takes off. There’s not a lot of stress on the body. There’s nothing on the TrackMan to suggest that this pitch is anything crazy. But I guess it looks like I’m throwing harder than it is.

“I’m definitely not a Luddite, but the analytics are just a tool. They’re not everything and they shouldn’t control the whole game. I’m not trying to make everything appear great on this one screen. The [high-speed] camera does help, like finding your release point. But at the same time your catcher and pitching coach can see something, too. Sometimes you get a pitch that TrackMan says was great, but you know it wasn’t. The important thing is when it’s game day you’re not thinking about mechanics.”

The closest comp to how Ryan throws a baseball is Freddy Peralta of the Brewers. Peralta throws his fastball with a release point of 4.98. Batters are hitting only .139 against it. There is a clear connection between release point and fastball effectiveness: the lower the release point, the harder it is for batters to hit the pitch:

Four-Seam Fastballs by Release Point Height, MLB 2021

Release PointHeightAvg.SLG

High

> 6 feet

.260

.464

Middle

> 5.5-5.9 feet

.242

.423

Low

< 5.4 feet

.234

.395

The low-release point effect is magnified when the fastball is thrown in the upper third of the strike zone. Fastballs from other release points gain only a marginal effect when they are thrown high. Here is why the high fastball thrown from the low release point is the killer pitch in baseball:

High Four-Seam Fastballs by Release Point Height, MLB 2021

Release PointHeightAvg.SLG

High

> 6 feet

.256

.462

Middle

> 5.5-5.9 feet

.233

.434

Low

< 5.4 feet

.198

.386

Among the best low-release-to-high-strike fastballs are those belonging to Josh Hader (.000 batting average against), Ian Kennedy (.000), Jack Flaherty (.000), Peralta (.118), Aaron Nola (.150) and Max Scherzer (.200). Ryan has fastball characteristics similar to that group. (Over the past two winters he has trained in Los Angeles with Flaherty, Max Fried, Lucas Giolito and Nick Pivetta—all “hypermobile” athletic pitchers.)

Ryan might have been in the big leagues already were it not for COVID-19. When the lockdown hit last year, he says, “I lucked out. My girlfriend’s parents were gracious enough to allow me to stay in their house in Malibu.” He found hiking trails. Another family allowed him to use their home gym. He took Muay Thai training sessions via Zoom from a trainer, Jason Park.

“Nothing crazy,” Ryan says. “He worked with me on loosening up and awareness of body movement. The whole thing was about having a sense of play and being loose.”

After his alternate site season, Ryan flew home to San Francisco before driving to Los Angeles.

“The whole time I listened to Greenlights, the book by Matthew McConaughey,” Ryan says. “I missed a couple of exits; I was so locked in on it. It’s a lot about how people now look for instant gratification and they miss the old things and philosophies that have such value. It’s really just about the journey and enjoying that. My best outings have come when I clear my mind. The meditation helps me get locked in.”

Ryan is an old soul. He cherishes the time he spent with his grandparents growing up. He became a better pitcher by playing other sports and savoring outdoor activities, not by chasing velocity as a “pitcher only” on youth travel teams and in pitching labs. He winds up like Nolan Ryan. He wants to pitch deep into games.

“I love it,” he says of starting. “It’s my favorite thing to do. It’s the endurance factor. Going deep into games is the best feeling. Go seven innings or more. I love that aspect of facing guys multiple times. You get them out once one way, then you need to ask, ‘How can I get them out the next two times?’

“I take care of my body. My mom and dad are really good athletes. Workload doesn’t seem to affect me. Between long-distance running and water polo, I’ve kept myself in pretty good shape.

“Hopefully I can have a 15-year career. Twenty would be great, too. My dad was running his fastest races when he was 40.”

Ryan turns 25 on June 5. He has conditioned himself through a lifetime of cross-training to be a workhorse like Matt Cain, the former Giants pitcher he admired while growing up in San Anselmo. Cain threw 158 2/3 innings at age 19 in the minors. He threw 200 innings in a big league season three times before he turned 25 (2007–09). Since then, only Felix Hernández, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner have done so.

Cain, a high school signee, threw 1,270 pro innings by the time he was Ryan’s age. Ryan has made it past the sixth inning of a professional game only once. Ryan may have the best intentions to be another Cain. But after the Lost Year, and as teams further restrict pitch counts and innings, will baseball allow such a throwback?

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