PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Rays pitching prospect Joe Ryan knows that his fastball played a big part in his meteoric rise through the Minors two years ago. He knows it’s a dominant pitch, more effective than most heaters even without overwhelming velocity. He just doesn’t necessarily know why that’s the case -- and that’s fine with him.
“I couldn’t tell you. I kind of like it being a secret, I guess,” Ryan said. “I don't even know, and yeah, the less I know, the better.”
Ryan could ride his four-seam fastball all the way to the Majors this season. The 24-year-old right-hander, Tampa Bay’s No. 11 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, was named the Rays’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2019, then spent last summer at the alternate training site. Now, he’s back in big league camp and getting another look in front of the big league coaching staff.
Ryan worked a quick, clean third inning against the Red Sox on Friday, striking out Enrique Hernández before retiring Alex Verdugo and J.D. Martinez.
“He's got stuff to work on, but he can go out there and compete against Major League hitters right now,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Watching him in his bullpens and his live BPs, he really gets after it. He does some things that create a lot of swing and miss. He's a strike-thrower.”
For all he knows about Ryan, though, Cash occasionally wonders what the deal is with that fastball. Why can’t anybody seem to square it up?
“At times we look at it and say, like, ‘What is it? Is it the movement on the fastball? Is it the deception he creates?’” Cash said. “But we just know, whatever it is, it's been successful for him.”
Ryan’s arsenal and attitude led to one player comparison that he is quite fond of: Matt Cain. Born in San Francisco and residing in nearby San Anselmo, Calif., Ryan grew up a fan of the longtime Giants right-hander, who spent 13 years in the Majors and made three All-Star teams with a four-seam fastball that also seemed to “rise” (or, more accurately, carry) through the zone. Ryan and Cain share an agency, so Ryan was excited to get a pair of cleats from Cain and “pretty flattered” when the Rays’ signing scout dropped that comparison on him.
In 2019, Ryan went 9-4 with a 1.96 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP and 183 strikeouts in 123 2/3 innings over 24 outings. He climbed from Class A Bowling Green all the way to Double-A Montgomery, with a stop at Class A Advanced Charlotte along the way. His strikeout total ranked second in the Minors and was third all-time for a Tampa Bay Minor Leaguer, behind only Matt Moore in 2011 (210) and ’10 (208).
Ryan has moved quickly, especially for a seventh-round pick out of Cal State Stanislaus in the 2018 Draft, so you certainly couldn’t blame him if he'd been frustrated by last year's Minor League season being canceled. Who knows what kind of progress he might have made over another full season? He has taken a different perspective, however, saying he didn’t feel like he “really hit the brakes” in 2020.
Ryan said he felt fortunate to pitch every fifth day at the Rays’ alternate training site. He lived with fellow pitching prospect Shane Baz, so he wasn’t totally isolated away from the ballpark. Even when Ryan faced the same hitters day in and day out in an empty ballpark, his competitive nature remained intact.
“Mindset-wise, it was the same. Once I step on the bump, it doesn't really change,” he said. “If you want to put a dummy in the box, I'll still compete just the same. So yeah, I just try to look at the catcher's glove and throw strikes, fill up the zone.”
There’s still room for Ryan to grow, as Cash mentioned. Evaluators are curious to see how he’ll fare against upper-level hitters, especially those who make a living off crushing fastballs, so it stands out that Ryan also mentioned wanting to feature a “good pitch mix” while reading swings and attacking hitters. He felt his slider and changeup evolved and improved last summer, giving him three options (slider, changeup and curveball) to complement his bread-and-butter fastball.
Ryan has also shown an eagerness to learn. He spent the 2019-20 offseason working out with proven big league pitchers Max Fried, Lucas Giolito and Jack Flaherty, all products of Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, and he said he has remained in touch with them. He worked out this offseason at the Sports Academy in Manhattan Beach, Calif., adding about 7 pounds to create more lower-half stability in his delivery. He has taken time this spring to chat with Rays veteran pitchers Rich Hill, Chris Archer and Michael Wacha.
Ryan admitted he has thought about joining the Rays in the Majors as soon as this season. It seems like a possibility if opposing hitters still can’t figure out his fastball.
“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about that, but that's out of my control,” Ryan said. “I'm going to go throw strikes and get people out, and whoever wants to make the decision to put me in the big leagues or not, that's out of my control.”