Rays prospect Joe Ryan just scratching the surface

Built with a strong combination of competitive and compassionate, Tampa Bay Rays pitching prospect Joe Ryan is making waves with his perplexing fastball, unique lifestyle and desire to learn. 

The laid back, California right-hander sits atop the Rays organization in strikeouts, more than 20 ahead of more-known southpaws Brendan McKay and Shane McClanahan. 

His strikeout total ranks third in the minor leagues. He’s held the Florida State League to a .178 batting average while posting an absurd walk rate of just 4.5%. The numbers will boggle the minds of statisticians alike, but to understand the complexity and projectability of Ryan’s success, you must delve deep beyond the numbers. 

At 23-years-old, Ryan’s 134 strikeouts this season do not originate in the humid, oversized spring training ballparks of the FSL. They date back to the rich, colorful landscape of Marin County, California and the bullpen mounds of Division II Cal State Stanislaus. 

His unique background has shaped him, sending him on an ascent to reach his full potential – a potential that Ryan is just scratching the surface of. 

“I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last couple of years,” said Ryan. “I’m just making a couple of adjustments now. I feel like I’m not even close to my peak yet. I have a lot to learn.” 

That desire to learn and improve has been intrinsic in Ryan from the beginning. 

“I think a lot of his accomplishments have been a combination of the physical development and the mental aspect of learning the skills,” Ryan’s father Kurtis said. “The education and studying, balancing with the physicality of it – you can’t just have one without the other to succeed. Studying the game of baseball has really helped him.” 

Baseball was not always the focal point of Ryan’s life. As a youth, his most passionate pursuits often took place away from the baseball diamond. But as the game has developed into a profession, his attention and focus has shifted more firmly on pitching. 

“He’s a gem,” Stone Crabs pitching coach Steve ‘Doc’ Watson said. “He’s constantly asking questions, looking for answers. He does a lot of reading on the history of the game and other pitchers that have come before him that have been extremely successful. Quite honestly, he’s a student of his craft and it’s paying dividends for him.” 

While most pitchers will spend their down-time listening to music or playing cards or video games, Ryan immerses himself with people. He spends much more time chatting with coaches and clubhouse personnel than staring at his phone. A conversation with Ryan can broach some unusual and unpredictable topics, but ultimately his goal is to glean information from those who have been in the game longer and use it to his advantage. 

That love for the people around him and the burning desire to get better quickly reminded Watson, a professional pitching coach for over three decades, of his most accomplished pupil. 

“Blake Snell was a great deal like that,” Watson said. “Maybe not to Joe’s extent where he did the studying. But he knew the history and he knew what he wanted to do and his search was ‘How do I get there?’ Joe is very much along those same lines, with a little more amateur experience. He is extremely dedicated to his craft.”

Ryan has made several adjustments to diversify and sharpen his entire pitching arsenal. He altered his wind-up in college to bring his hands over his head, something that an estimated 90 percent of Hall of Fame pitchers have done. He scrapped his high school knuckleball and self-proclaimed “cement-mixer” slider and developed a more reliable and sharper breaking pitch. He learned a cutter when Rays reliever Hunter Wood rehabbed with Ryan’s Charlotte team. 

“I think it’s just confidence in my pitches,” Ryan said about his success. “I’m just trying to fill up the zone. I’m not really looking for strikeouts. Listening to Nolan Ryan (no relation) talk about strikeouts, it’s just filling up the zone, throwing strikes and giving your defense a chance to work. Sometimes you just get swings and misses.” 

Most of Ryan’s swings and misses have come against a pitch he’s always had – the fastball. Even with the development of his off-speed arsenal accelerating at breakneck speed, Ryan will still use his good old-fashioned heater more than 80 percent of the time. 

Scouts, coaches and hitters have all agreed that Ryan’s fastball is something they’ve never seen before. His velocity works within a typical range of 91-95 mph, but the pitch has all the intangibles working in its favor. 

“We would call it carry right now, but he hides the ball extremely well,” Watson said. “The hitters call him electric. They say, ‘We can’t see the ball until it’s 20 or 30 feet in front of us.’ At that point, it’s very difficult to pick up any angle on the pitch or what the pitch even is. He’s kind of a Houdini with it.” 

Ryan has always thrown from the three-quarters angle that he utilizes now. But there is more to a fastball than the radar gun reading. There’s spin rate, extension, backspin and deception, plus other formulas that have yet to reach the baseball lexicon. All of those factors play into Joe’s favor. 

While things have fallen into place for Ryan in 2019, his road to the Rays’ organization took many twists and turns. 

Welcome TO Marin 

To many, the Golden Gate bridge is a landmark – a great place to pose for pictures and represent a trip to San Francisco. But those who venture north across the bridge and away from the Bay area will get lost in some of the most stunningly beautiful and diverse terrain in the United States. 

Marin County is one of the smallest counties in California, but it has shaped Joe Ryan much more than a hometown usually will. Growing up on the foothills of Mount Tamalpais, Ryan had mountains, rivers, hills, valleys, oceans and cities all within 30 minutes of his hometown of San Anselmo. 

“It’s a little bubble,” Ryan said. “The ocean is right over the hill. There’s everything. I grew up mountain biking, a lot of running. My dad is an ultra-marathon runner. I grew up messing around on sail boats, surfing and getting lost in the hills. I couldn’t ask for a better place to grow up.” 

From the time Ryan was a toddler, his father Kurtis took him outside. 

“It was something we could do as a family and I just loved sharing that,” Kurtis said. “Joe took to it and we’d do old-school activities. We would go out and ride a bike and then go fishing. Or we’d go hiking and then go backpacking and then go surfing.” 

The Ryan family has deep roots in Marin that date back generations. His maternal great grandfather grew up in an orphanage in Marin. 

“We’re fourth generation,” Ryan said. “It used to be sheep farms when my relatives were growing up there. [My dad] knows the hills and all that land pretty well.” 

When Ryan was in middle school, the community built baseball fields on the same plot of land as his great grandfather’s orphanage. When the fields opened, Joe’s team was scheduled to play the first game. Joe started that game and won. He wore his great grandfather’s glove. 

The love of Marin and all its beauty was passed down the Ryan family tree. 

“I grew up in a very outdoor community,” said Kurtis. “We have a lot of open space and hills. I started at an early age in boy scouts. I just loved everything from fishing to backpacking to exploring. I think that was a very healthy pursuit. I later got into cross country running and mountain biking.” 

Kurtis took Ryan along on his various excursions as much as he could, often including Ryan’s friends. Every season had its perks. There was surfing and backpacking in the summer, snowboarding and snow shoeing in the winter. Ryan and Kurtis would take several overnight camping trips, sometimes for as long as seven days. 

“Our normal day [on those trips] would be get up early in the morning and going fishing on first light,” Kurtis said. “We’d come back and fire up the camp stove and have a nice breakfast – sometimes trout, sometimes eggs, always oatmeal and hot chocolate. We would go off and explore – either move the camp someplace else to another lake, or explore a ridge or a mountain somewhere.” 

On the home front, there was never a need for electronics. 

“Both of my parents are super active,” Ryan said. “I didn’t have video games growing up. We got rid of cable for most of my life. We spent so much time outside.” 

“When he was about three, he got up and turned the TV off and said, ‘Let’s go play,’” Kurtis said. “We disconnected our cable in that moment. It was amazing to see this little kid turn the TV off. We stopped TV. He never had a game boy or computer games. We were just active doing things.” 

But as Ryan reached middle school, he started to get frustrated with the concept of no video games. As his friends started immersing themselves in PlayStation and XBox, he wanted in on the action. 

“In middle school, he would say that we were the worst parents and that he was the only kid that didn’t have this or that,” said Kurtis. “Later on, he started to realize that the real world that we lived in was better for him.” 

It’s not all about baseball

The health of a professional pitcher can be delicate. Some of the most promising arms can be rendered worthless with one fateful pitch. Some guys simply run out of gas. Others hit their peak too early. 

Many scouts take caution when drafting and signing pitchers from California or other warm- weather states because they believe that playing the game year-round can put the pitcher’s long-term health and durability at risk. 

While this might be a concern for some young hurlers in California, Ryan’s plethora of childhood activities kept his arm fresh. Baseball was never a year-round endeavor. 

“Baseball was definitely one of his sports, but very much a seasonal sport,” Kurtis said. “He never chose to play in the summer or fall ball. We avoided travel teams. He got picked up by a few and asked to play but most of the time he was busy doing other stuff – swimming, backpacking, surfing.” 

Kurtis said that Ryan would look forward to baseball season as the end of the winter approached. When it got warm enough, the father-son duo would see how many days in a row they could play catch. 

“He got really excited about baseball season coming up, but once it was done and the championship game finished, he was on to something else,” Kurtis said. “It was time to take a break.” 

Other seasons meant other sports. 

“I try and have good separation between my life and the game,” Ryan said. “Baseball was always a large focus, but my core group of friends was playing water polo together since fifth grade and all the way through high school. That was year-round for me. I played baseball during baseball season, but water polo was a heavy focus. I think that really helped me not get burnt out with baseball. Mountain biking and running played a large role too.” 

Ryan talks about water polo with as much passion as he does baseball. He grew up playing for Sleepy Hollow Aquatics and Drake High School under two-time National Player of the Year Matt Swanson and Marin County Athletic League Hall of Famer Mark Anderson. 

“We were the first team in that club program,” Ryan said. “The coaching staff at my high school and my club program was amazing to watch develop. Water polo is definitely growing throughout the nation, but also a lot more in northern California.” 

Ryan’s water polo and swim teams enjoyed tremendous success all while keeping Joe in fantastic physical shape. The hours he spent treading water, fighting off opponents and ripping shots tested his competitive will and kept his gifted right arm active. 

“It allowed my body to mature a little bit more,” he said. “That cross-training aspect was essential to my development. I didn’t really go too crazy with pitching at a young age.” 

Ryan’s innings remained limited even as he reached college. In part due to injuries, he worked only 76 innings in his first three years of college. 

Now in his first full pro season, Ryan has been introduced to a professional throwing schedule, which involves throwing a baseball seven days a week. 

“The reps and the experience of throwing more and more is going to help me get stronger,” he said. 

Since baseball took only a supporting role in his childhood, Ryan was never burnt out. His mindset towards the game is still fresh, and his arm, body and mind still have much more to offer. 

“The baseball side was definitely left to keep the game fun, and I think that will keep me in it a lot longer,” Joe said. “Hopefully, I’m just starting to play those 20 years now.” 

Matadors, Warriors and Rosenbergs

When University of San Francisco head coach Greg Moore left his alma mater to take over the head coaching job at Cal State Northridge, he brought with him two of his top northern California recruits – current Rays prospects Joe Ryan and Kenny Rosenberg. 

Rosenberg was a year older than Ryan and a fantastic goalie. He considered pursuing soccer in college, but went to Northridge to play for Moore instead. Rosenberg struggled in his freshman year, posting an 8.18 ERA in limited action out of the bullpen.

Ryan, meanwhile, out-pitched Rosenberg’s Tamalpais team for the league championship in 2013. During his senior year of high school in 2014, Ryan went 12-1 with a 0.76 ERA, receiving Conference Pitcher of the Year honors. That summer, Rosenberg found out that Ryan would be joining him at Northridge. 

“I didn’t like him when he was in high school because he was my opposition and he had some hype coming up,” Rosenberg said about Ryan. “I hadn’t met him but I was like ‘This guy is just everywhere and he’s going to haunt me.’ He was kind of unheard of, like I was in a lot of ways.” 

They remained unheard of through 2015. Ryan worked 30 innings out of the Matadors bullpen, while Rosenberg missed the entire season with a back injury. 

In 2016, Rosenberg pitched through a hip issue and led the Big West in strikeouts, getting drafted by Tampa Bay in the eighth round. Riddled by injuries, Ryan was nothing more than a sidekick. He worked to a 3.35 ERA over 40 innings, 58 fewer than Rosenberg. He missed part of that season and nearly all of 2017 with injuries. 

Throughout their up and down careers at CSUN, Ryan and Rosenberg grew a liking to each other. 

“We competed against each other in high school, and he was one of the first people I met when I got down to the school,” Ryan said. “My sophomore year we got to hang out quite a bit more [while rehabbing].” 

When Ryan was injured, he returned to one of the places he felt most comfortable – the pool. Rosenberg came with him. Rather than talking about curveball grips or pitch sequencing, Rosenberg and Ryan focused on flip turns and backstrokes. 

“He would show up in his Speedo and I was always wearing my board shorts and I always felt out of place,” said Rosenberg. “He taught me how to breathe, told me I needed some goggles. He was a swimmer in high school and I hurt my back my sophomore year and part of my rehab was swimming laps. We spent a lot of time together because neither of us had any business at the field.” 

After signing with Tampa Bay, Rosenberg struck out 133 batters for Low-A Bowling Green in 2017, posting excellent numbers in his first full pro season. Ryan, meanwhile, managed only six innings at Northridge due to a lat strain. Despite that, Rosenberg still believed Ryan would get his shot as a professional. 

“He’s a competitor,” said Rosenberg. “He’s got one of those fastballs – there’s just something about it. It’s got extra life. When he’s locked in, he’s got smooth delivery and is really tough to beat.” 

Where it all turned around

Ryan finished the 2017 school year unsure whether he would ever get a shot at professional baseball. He had one year of college left but went undrafted in his first time eligible since high school. After two difficult seasons in a row, he knew it was time for a change. 

“It was a good time for me to get out of there,” Ryan said about Cal State Northridge. “I needed a change of scenery and to work on some stuff.” 

Ryan knew that if he transferred to another Division I school, he would have to sit out a full year and wouldn’t be visible to scouts until the 2019 season. At that point, he would be 23 years old and two full years older than other players being considered. His only option to play immediately was to transfer down to a lower level. 

During the summer of 2016, Ryan got the opportunity to pitch for the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod League. Playing in a wood-bat league against top competition, Ryan finished the season with a 2.12 ERA and earned national recognition as a potential pro prospect. Little did he know that a year later, that season in the Cape would revive his career. 

“Getting the opportunity to play in the Cape Cod League and get some recognition out there, helped me get contacted by a lot of places [when I was looking to transfer],” Ryan said. “They gave me some connections and I went down for a visit an hour away from home.” 

Ryan took a trip to Division II Cal State Stanislaus, a small public school about 10 miles southeast of Modesto, California. Joe met the coaches and visited the baseball facilities, which included “an attractive, old-fashion manual scoreboard in right field,” according to the school website. 

“It was an easy drive to go to Stanislaus,” said Ryan. “As soon as I got there, I knew it was the perfect spot for me. Coaches Mike McNeil and Kenny Leonesio were amazing. I got to just pitch and work on my body and get better.” 

Ryan didn’t just get better – he dominated. In his only season at Stanislaus, he set the school record for strikeouts (127), leading all of NCAA baseball during the regular season. Ryan finished 8-1 with a 1.65 ERA, walking just 13 batters in 14 starts (1.2 BB/9). He swept the conference and regional awards and became the first Stanislaus player to be named a First Team All-American since 1991. 

“I was coming off a lat strain and I threw quite a bit,” Ryan said. “I was just trying to stay healthy and compete in games. It was good for the mind.” 

As Ryan continued to hone his craft with Leonesio, he made one critical adjustment to his wind-up. Ryan said he used to start his bullpen sessions at Drake High School by raising his hands over his head for the first couple of pitches to get rhythm. 

“I never really thought anything of it,” said Ryan. “Feeling kind of quirky last year and trying to get my timing back because I hadn’t really thrown for a while, I was playing catch with it and my coach thought I should try it off a mound. I threw two bullpens with it and then brought it into the game and did really well, I think I had 11 Ks.” 

From that point on, Ryan has lifted his hands over his head on every pitch. It’s a classic look to an effortless delivery. 

“I’ve always had a really high leg kick, so it kind of helps me with my timing and getting extended with everything,” he said. “The staff [with the Rays] really likes it. A lot of people are going to that modified wind up now, so I just decided to do the opposite.” 

When others zig, Ryan zags. The fastball specialist from San Anselmo was on his way. 

The season at Stanislaus sent Ryan soaring up draft boards. He fielded calls from interested teams during the first few rounds of the 2018 draft but didn’t get picked. On Day 2, his name was announced as the seventh-round pick of the Rays. Ryan knew who to call first. 

“I knew why he called without even listening to the voicemail,” Rosenberg said. “I knew the Rays picked him. I was so happy for him.” 

After coming back inside from his pre-game workout, Rosenberg called Ryan back from the Charlotte Stone Crabs clubhouse – the same Rays affiliate that Ryan would make a name for himself with the following season. 

“He asked me about the organization, about the rules – collared shirts, haircuts, stuff like that,” Rosenberg said. “I called him a few days later to congratulate him on his first pro win with Hudson Valley. The communication with us has been consistent.” 

Ryan was assigned to Low-A Hudson Valley, where he finished with a 3.72 ERA over 36.1 innings. He struck out 51, which should’ve been our sign that big things were coming. For those of us who missed it, Ryan has made sure we’ve noticed him in 2019. 

The ice ax and the baby jogger

Baseball is a game of routine. Pitchers execute the same motion over and over again, while sticking to an identical schedule between outings. Joe Ryan’s first routine was implemented long before he was a professional baseball player. As a youngster, he would wake up early every morning and go outside. 

“My dad would drag me out in the mornings and make it fun,” Ryan said. “I would race long- distance and go as hard as I could. He had us playing baseball before seven in the morning before school. After school, we’d go hiking in the hills and try and catch snakes.” 

Along with camping came competition. Kurtis and Ryan and would run long distances when Ryan was only 7 or 8 years old. 

“My dad and I would run the Dipsea every year,” Ryan said. “It’s the oldest trail race in the U.S, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach over Mount Tam. It’s a 7.2-mile cross country race and it’s pretty fun.” 

Beginning when Joe was in third grade, he and a couple friends would join Kurtis on the grueling course. 

“It became this annual metric of your physical ability against other people,” said Kurtis. “There’s coveted prizes that they give for certain places. Pursuing those became an obsession of mine. Joseph and his friends got into it. Him and his friends were some of the youngest to ever run it, and they did very, very well. He finished it with a really good time.” 

Kurtis has run the race every year for decades. After he finished, he would wait for Ryan and his friends to emerge from the woods and make the turn onto Highway 1 for the final half-mile stretch. One year, as fans and media captured the final leg, Joe avoided a potentially disastrous moment. 

“There was this world-class runner in front of him that was an elderly man, in his early 70s at the time,” Kurtis recalled. “The man stumbled right in front of Joe. Joe hurdled over him, reached down and helped this man to his feet and then ran with him.” 

When asked to describe Ryan, Kurtis believes that story does it best. 

“He’s very compassionate,” said Kurtis. “He really tries to look at things from another person’s viewpoint. He’s very considerate of other people.” 

Compassionate and competitive – two themes that have followed Ryan throughout his youth. 

It was another outdoor experience in Joe’s early teenage years helped Kurtis see his son’s potential. 

The father-son combo decided to tackle a mountain climbing excursion. Kurtis had friends with the proper equipment and training to lead a trip to the top of Mount Shasta, one of the largest mountains in California. 

“What we were going to undertake was quite an expedition,” said Kurtis. “It was a steep climb under extreme conditions, hours of trudging through very deep snow and ice with clamps and ice axes to get to the top of this 14,000-foot mountain.” 

Kurtis took Ryan to his friend’s garage, which was full of all the mountain climbing equipment they would need. Upon entering, Ryan’s face lit up. Kurtis said there was a special ice ax that Joe grew attached to. He asked questions and became very familiar with the equipment in a brief amount of time. 

The group left the base of the mountain in the dark at 2 a.m. and spent the entire morning climbing towards the summit. With the summer sun thawing the ice and snow, the journey through the wet, heavy snow only got more taxing. The climb took a full 12 hours, one that Ryan called “epic.” 

“His preparation, care and thought really impressed me a lot,” Kurtis said about his son. “It strengthened my respect for him. It also motivated me to challenge him. I thought, ‘If he can do this, I bet he could do a lot more.’” 

As Ryan reached high school, he focused on his team sports of water polo, swimming and baseball a lot more. However, it was the competitive outdoor experiences of his childhood that taught Ryan what it would take to be successful with team sport.

When Kurtis looks back, he still finds humor when remembering how young Joe was when those competitive juices starting flow. 

“I used to push him in the baby jogger in my cross-country races around Mont Tam on these trails. As a very little kid, he’d be in the baby jogger and we’d be pushing. In this recreation area, there would be a lot of mountain bikers out there. I would be running up this grade and I would catch these men on their mountain bikes. Joseph at two or three years old would look back at me and say ‘Pass ‘em daddy, pass ‘em.’ It was kind of embarrassing because we’d be passing these bikers and I would tell him, ‘Shh, don’t say that. You’re making them feel bad.’” 

As the years have gone by, Joe Ryan is still climbing that mountain. Only this time, he isn’t passing recreational bikers, but the other baseball prospects. Kurtis isn’t pushing him anymore either, because at 23-years-old, Joe Ryan has all the competiveness and compassion he needs to reach the summit. 

John Vittas
John Vittas
John is a broadcaster for the Charlotte Stone Crabs, the High-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. He's covered the minor leagues for four years and is based at the Rays' spring training complex in Port Charlotte, FL. He's previously written as a freelancer for several outlets, including the Detroit News and Charlotte Sun.

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