Prospect Warner optimistic about renewing career with Rockies
After a tough, and wild, 2014, young righty working to bounce back one pitch at a time
DENVER -- Frank Gonzales was nervous before the bullpen session and feared the worst. His son, Alex, who would catch Ryan Warner, also had misgivings.
Warner endured horrific control problems last season at the Rockies' short-season Class A affiliate Tri-City, where Gonzales was the pitching coach. Alex, 16, a high school catcher, visited his father during the season. He caught Warner in the bullpen and witnessed his monumental struggles first-hand.
So Gonzales and his son were bracing themselves earlier this month when Warner made the two-hour drive from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, Colo., where Gonzales lives. It would be the first time Gonzales had seen Warner throw since mid-August when, the day after another painful start, Warner was removed from the Tri-City rotation and didn't pitch the balance of the season.
Now nearly six months later, what would Gonzales see from the 21-year-old Warner? Would he be more relaxed and less tentative when making pitches? Would the 6-foot-7 Warner have a higher arm slot, enabling him to capitalize on his height with a better downward angle? Would the ball come out of his hand better than it did? Would there be glimpses of the form that made Warner a prospect when the Rockies drafted him as a third-round supplemental pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft? Gonzales really didn't know what to expect.
"I was just hoping it wasn't going to be big misses and arm-side high and then trying to over-correct to the left side," Gonzales said. "He was around the plate, so it was a good change for sure.
"When I told Alex that Warner was coming up to throw a bullpen, of course he was excited. I think Alex was worried about how bad it was going to be, or if it was going to be around the plate. After the 'pen, he said, 'Man, that's a different guy.' "
One decent 25-pitch bullpen session in early February is a tiny step, to be sure. But it represented continued progress for Warner, whose work this winter has left him hopeful, as well as realistic.
"I feel a lot better than I did at the end of last season," Warner said. "But it's always different when that hitter gets in there. But all I got to do is almost erase the hitter and just keep throwing to the catcher like I have been."
It would be wonderful for Warner and the Rockies if he stays on that course after a season of torment. He went 1-4 with a 6.20 ERA in 11 starts for Tri-City last season, averaging 8.4 walks and 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings while throwing seven wild pitches and hitting seven batters. Warner hit two batters in each of his final four starts, a span of 13 1/3 innings in which he allowed 17 walks.
"It was a difficult time for Ryan," Gonzales said. "I think honestly if anybody in their right mind can keep battling the way he did, going through all the struggles he had, it says a lot about who he is. A lot of people would have quit. It was that bad, honestly."
Warner left for Spring Training in Arizona on Feb. 7, one month before the Rockies open their Minor League camp. He wanted to take advantage of the warmer weather and, more importantly, have the opportunity to throw in front of coaches like Ryan Kibler, who lives in the Phoenix area and was Warner's pitching coach when he began his professional career at Rookie-level Grand Junction.
That was in 2012 when he signed with the Rockies out of Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs for $363,700. He had committed to North Carolina State but relished the opportunity to play for the team he had grown up watching.
Warner moved up to Tri-City in 2013 and went 3-4 with a 3.36 ERA in 15 starts, averaging 2.3 walks but just 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He tired as the season wore on, and his 88-89 mph fastball was less consistent, replaced by an occasional 86 or 87. But his control didn't veer off course.
In Spring Training last year, Warner said he became worried and anxious about where he would start the 2014 season. He was hoping to escape the purgatory of a second year in extended spring training for a full-season club and open the year at low Class A Asheville.
His anxiety and worry affected Warner's delivery. He was so intent on throwing strikes that "instead of just letting the ball go, [I was] thinking about what I should do throughout my entire delivery to get the ball there."
All this led to Warner's arm slot not being high enough and his arm path being inconsistent.
"The ball wasn't coming out of my hand the same way," Warner said. "Sometimes my hand would be turned a different way, and it caused the ball to not go exactly where I wanted it to be. I wasn't finishing all the way through. I was kind of coming across or babying it as I feel for throwing strikes."
After a poor start in Spring Training, Warner sought out Andy McKay, the Rockies' peak performance coordinator, and told McKay, "Something doesn't feel right. I need your help." A grateful Warner said they talked throughout the season and that McKay "was a big help and he still is."
Warner failed to get out of the first inning in three starts, including his final one on Aug 11 at Vancouver. The Rockies decided not to have Warner participate in their instructional league program that began in mid-September. Instead, they told him not to pick up a baseball any time soon.
In November, Warner began playing catch outdoors at Pine Creek High School with Luke Connolly, a former teammate there. Rather suddenly, the ball started feeling better and better, more so when Warner began throwing bullpen sessions. That led to Warner driving to Fort Collins to see Gonzales and throw for him.
"For me, it was a very productive bullpen," Gonzales said. "He had a process to him. Made some nice pitches. Threw some balls for strikes to both sides of the plate, which wasn't happening before."
Gonzales said Warner's curveball was down but a little bit short. But the pitch had good rotation because of Warner's arm slot. Warner's fingers were on top of the ball, unlike last summer when he was often on the side of his curveball to the point where the pitch was scrapped as Warner tried to get his fastball in working order.
"He just was cleaner in his posture, cleaner in his delivery," Gonzales said. "And everything was going to the plate. When he was really bad last year, he wasn't even finishing pitches. He wasn't getting his nose into the catcher's glove."
Even during the worst times last season, Warner said he never dreaded going to the ballpark and called it his "get-away." When he's going right, Warner has an 89-91 mph fastball with "really good sink when he's over the plate," Gonzales said, adding that Warner has a plus changeup and a curveball that has a chance to be an average pitch if he can get it timed up over the plate.
Unlike last spring, where Warner begins the 2015 season is not going to be a concern. That led to nothing good. Warner figures he has seen the worst and is eager to start anew. If that means more time in extended spring training, so be it.
"It was a long, tough year, but I was just determined to get out of it," Warner said. "Taking time away from baseball and now getting back on track -- just got to maintain that and not worry about anything except trying to perform during Spring Training."