PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Joe Ryan was the Rays’ seventh-round pick in the 2018 Draft, selected out of Division II Cal State Stanislaus, where he went 8-1 with a 1.65 ERA and 127/13 K/BB as a senior. The Rays’ No. 8 prospect emerged as one of the Draft’s biggest steals in his first full season, climbing from Class A Bowling Green to Double-A Montgomery, was named the Rays Minor League Pitcher of the Year after he ranked among the Minor League leaders (120 IP min.) with a 1.96 ERA (third), 0.84 WHIP (first) and 183 strikeouts (second).
MLB.com: As a kid you spent a lot of time outdoors with your friends and family and even competed in a lot of different outdoor events. What would you say is the most intense, physically grueling outdoor competition you’ve ever done?
Joe Ryan: When I was 5 or 6 to 12 (years old) were some intense years of outdoor stuff. Mountain bike racing was a big one, where you’re cold, wet, exhausted. One of my best friends, we did pretty much everything together -- the gnarlier the better, we were doing it together. We’d do creek hikes with my dad when we were like 6 years old, and we’d just be over our heads in these creeks. If it was pouring rain and the river was going more, that’s when we’d want to go. We did the Dipsea Race, which is the second-oldest running race and oldest trail race in the United States -- from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, 7.2 miles, not too bad. That’s a pretty intense one.
MLB.com: You mentioned biking before, but you also did a lot of other extreme, outdoor sports. What are some of your other favorites?
Ryan: I grew up surfing and did lifeguard camp during the summer, which was about 2-3 days per week. We were out there working with the lifeguards at Stinson Beach. It was pretty sweet -- we had a good swim team down there and at the end we’d always have a competition down in Santa Cruz. It was a good time.
MLB.com: You were a very good and accomplished water polo player before you began your baseball career. What sparked your interest in that as a kid?
Ryan: My dad played water polo growing up and a little bit in college. All my friends were on the swim team, and I went to a little water polo camp with them and started doing swim team, which I realized would help me with water polo. So I kept doing that and realized that water polo was helping me with baseball, so I stuck with it. I played water polo year-round and only played baseball during baseball season, so you could say that almost was more of my main focus.
MLB.com: So, just how good were you at water polo?
Ryan: I wouldn’t say I was too nasty, but I was pretty good. I played on varsity and we had a pretty good team with people I knew since kindergarten. We played some good teams that were more physical than us, but we were able to beat those guys, I think, because of the relationship we built.
MLB.com: How did water polo make you a better baseball player?
Ryan: It helped so much. There’s a whole kinetic chain that syncs up, but now I’m realizing that it mostly helped me from the waist up, because my hips are pretty tight and I’m still learning how to use the ground now. That will be fun this year, learning how to use the force of the ground better. Overall, that late extension and late hand speed you need to have at the end in order to make the [water polo] ball skip really helps with my fastball.
MLB.com: Speaking of that fastball, you throw it a lot and did so last season, right?
Ryan: I think [the Rays] were happy when I got my usage down to 71 percent and finally started to mix in the offspeed stuff.
MLB.com: You must have figured out at a young age that you had a dominant fastball?
Ryan: I wouldn’t say too young. I barely made the All-Star team growing up; I think I got eight at-bats my freshman year of high school and didn’t really play that much. Junior year of high school I realized I could throw it by people, but I think my command really helped me get a long way. I was never a throw it down-the-middle and get-it-by guys.
MLB.com: So, have you at all been surprised with the success of your fastball in pro ball?
Ryan: Definitely not now that I’m in pro ball. I think in college I had a little success with it and probably arrogantly expected that to just carry over pretty easily.
MLB.com: You’re in big league camp now, after climbing three levels and finishing second in the Minors in strikeouts. A year ago, could you have seen this past year playing out as it did?
Ryan: Honestly, my goal every year is to be the best pitcher I can be. And as long as [the Rays] were willing to move me up, I knew I could do whatever I needed to do. I can’t say I was surprised. I just try to take it day by day and stay in the moment. Right now, I’m in big league camp, focused on that, and wherever I’m at next will dictate that mindset. I noticed that halfway through short season, that mindset really helped me, and last year that couldn’t have been more true -- just trying to take advantage of the opportunity given to me, and with all the coaches they have around at every level, it’s pretty easy to do that.
MLB.com: How would you say your secondary arsenal has grown and how have the Rays helped to facilitate that growth?
Ryan: Having [Class A Advanced Charlotte pitching coach] Doc Watson here, who I spent the most time with last year, is special. Hunter Wood was down here one day last season working on the slider a little bit -- mine was slow, getting into the curveball area too much -- and he showed me his cutter and I worked with that, throwing it for a while. I was trying to throw it for a good portion of the year and had some success with it, but I could see where it was going, becoming more of a slider, so that was one thing I worked on this offseason. My agency, CAA, is amazing and had an outstanding setup for us down in Southern California where I got to work with some of the best guys in baseball right now, pick up some stuff from them. I would also say my changeup -- I didn’t throw too many of them in High A until the last couple of games, but I was told that it’d be something I would need to move up. So I threw it more after that to show what I can do, and it was a pitch that helped me tremendously in Double-A. My offspeed just makes my fastball that much better, so it’s pretty sweet to have all those pitches in there now.
MLB.com: What are your biggest areas of focus, looking to improve upon in 2020?
Ryan: I’m coming to the yard every day with one tool to work on, so, for me right now, I’m trying to feel the ground through my feet. Before it was more of a tall-and-fall and just get it done, but now it’s about how do I make it as efficient and powerful as possible. Just working on that, I notice how much better my arm comes through, how much better my curveball, slider and changeup are, and just the consistency that brings. I would say that’s my focus for the season, and just make the minute changes to make that happen.
MLB.com: What’s it like facing big league hitters this spring?
Ryan: It’s pretty fun. It’s just baseball to me, just trying to focus on throwing to the glove. It was pretty cool, though, pitching at JetBlue the other day -- it was packed out and I just got to take that in for a second, which was pretty special. I got to backfoot a slider and get a swing-and-miss from a lefty, which is something I’ve been working on, and the changeup got some swing-and-misses which I was excited about.