A Conversation With Arizona Diamondbacks Prospect Ryne Nelson

Ryne Nelson emerged as the top pitching prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks system in 2021. A second-round selection in 2019 out of the University of Oregon, the 23-year-old right-hander was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year after logging a 3.17 ERA — with 163 strikeouts in 116-and-a-third innings — between High-A Hillsboro and Double-A Amarillo. Mixing and matching a riding fastball with a trio of solid secondaries, Nelson held opposing hitters to a .206 batting average and a .644 OPS. He issued just 40 free passes.

Originally a two-way player before becoming a closer at Oregon, the 6-foot-3, 180 pound Henderson, Nevada native transitioned into a starting role upon entering pro ball. Nelson — No. 5 on our newly-released Diamondbacks Top Prospects list — discussed his development, as well as his 2020 eye surgery, via phone earlier this week.


David Laurila: Let’s start with a self scouting report. Who are you as a pitcher?

Ryne Nelson: “I would say that I’m aggressive in the zone, and I like to change speeds and eye levels.”

Laurila: Do you identify as a power pitcher?

Nelson: “I like to think so. I mean, ‘power pitcher’ is kind of changing nowadays — you’ve got to be up in the triple digits to be a power pitcher — but I do pitch off of my fastball.”

Laurila: Where is your velocity? Also, are you trying to miss bats?

Nelson: “Last year, I was 94-97 [mph]. I didn’t really get much above 97, and not too far below 93. And yes, I’m trying to miss bats. I’ve kind of always been that way, even in college… maybe even more so in college, I was trying to let my stuff beat people. It was kind of, ‘I’m going fastball down the middle and blowing it by you.’ Now it’s more, ‘Okay, I’m going to place this fastball inside, and the velocity and location will beat you’ — not just the velocity.

“In college, I was so focused on… like, if I was throwing a slider, I was trying to make it the nastiest slider possible. So, yeah, I was even more of a swing-and-miss pitcher back then.”

Laurila: When did you start to turn the corner and become less of a thrower and more of a pitcher?

Nelson: “Once I got into pro ball and observing guys around me, looking at who had success. You have to be a lot more methodical with your process. You have to think pitches out, and set other pitches up. I saw how I could be giving myself a better chance to get a swing-and-miss with pitch selection and sequencing.

“That started in Hillsborough, in 2019, where I was working with Barry Enright and just getting my feet wet in pro ball. I took the stuff I learned there into the COVID year, where I was working a little bit more on my own, and also with the rehab coordinators. I wouldn’t say there was a defining moment, but I really put it into action in 2020.”

Laurila: Were you rehabbing anything, or were the rehab coordinators simply part of the pitching development program?

Nelson: “I had eye surgery in May of 2020. I was throwing during that time, and had to stop for the surgery. To build me back up, they brought me out to Arizona and left me there for a couple of months.”

Laurila: What specifically was the surgery?

Nelson: “Keratoconus was the diagnosis, and the surgery was called corneal cross-linking. Before the surgery, my eyes kind of came to a peak. It was almost like a mountain, but they needed to be a hill, a rounded hill. They shaved down the pointy part, then put in some eyedrops that would kind of reform them. That’s the cross-linking — the eyedrops linking with the eye to make a rounder surface, which then would allow a contact to fit in the eyes more properly. Before, the contact wouldn’t sit right, so we were never able to correct the vision.”

Laurila: Had the eye issue affected you on the mound?

Nelson: “Yeah. Before the surgery, I would always be worrying about getting the signs right. There was a big focus on not crossing up the catcher, and not having to worry about that makes it a lot easier to pitch. My eyesight was really bad.”

Laurila: When did it start becoming a problem?

Nelson: “I noticed my vision was going bad in my freshman and sophomore years of college, and again, it was something we could never correct with contacts because they were too uncomfortable. I tried glasses, and those helped a little bit. That was my junior year. I went to an eye doctor and he was like, ‘Yeah, this is something that’s going to need surgery, and it’s possibly going to be a year before you can get contacts that actually work.’ So, I kind of toughed it out for my junior year, and then COVID gave me a good opportunity to get it done. The contacts I wear now are called scleral lenses.”

Laurila: Along with addressing your eye issue, you’ve also cleaned up your delivery…

Nelson: “Yes, that was one of the main focuses in 2020. I was throwing across my body and landing about six inches to a foot across my body. My top half had to compensate for that, which made it hard to repeat and be effective in the zone. Getting my alignment towards home plate into a straight line — working laterally — helped clean up my arm slot inconsistency, and my release point consistency. It’s allowed me to just focus on the glove, and really attack the glove.”

Laurila: Where is your arm slot?

Nelson: “I would say it’s a high three-quarters. Before, when I was across my body, I would almost have to tilt my shoulders. My left shoulder would be below my right shoulder, and my arm slot was almost over the top, like an Iron Mike.”

Laurila: Did your spin rate and spin efficiency improve after making the adjustment?

Nelson: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, but I wasn’t really into the numbers, per se. I think they’re important, but for me, it was more, ‘Can I execute pitches better?’ It wasn’t about making my fastball spin better, but rather making my delivery more repeatable. I’d been inconsistent, so I was basically trying to make sure that I could get those good numbers every time.”

Laurila: What are your spin rate and spin efficiency?

Nelson: “I honestly couldn’t tell you. I kind of just let the hitters tell me. If I throw a fastball up, and they’re swinging and missing, I know it must be carrying pretty good. If the body is feeling good, and the ball is coming out good, I just accept it and do my thing.”

Laurila: What do you consider to be your best secondary pitch?

Nelson: “I’d say my curveball. The slider has been good for me at times — in college, I used it more than my curveball — but the curveball has been more consistent over the past couple of years. It’s a pitch I can a throw for a strike. I can expand with it. I feel like my control with the curveball is a tick above the slider. I also think that my curveball and my fastball complement each other really well.”

Laurila: Do you throw your curveball with a standard grip, or do you spike it?

Nelson: “It’s not spiked. It’s just my index and middle fingers kind of shoved up against the horseshoe.”

Laurila: What about the shape and velocity?

Nelson: “I’ve thrown it at like 76 [mph]. The break will be around 11-7, or maybe 11:30-6:30. It’s not quite straight up and down, but it’s pretty up and down, as opposed to side to side.”

Laurila: Are you throwing a changeup?

Nelson: “That’s another thing I really worked on in 2020. I implemented it into my game plan in ’21, especially toward the back half of the year, and it allowed me to do a lot more on the mound. It’s not my best secondary pitch, but it really improved my game when I started to use it more.

“Grip-wise, it’s kind of a four-seam fastball with me putting my middle and ring fingers over the top of the ball. Rather than throwing a four-seam with my index and middle, I just slide over on the ball and get it a little more in the palm of my hand.”

Laurila: You had some success closing games at Oregon, and in the Cape Cod League. That said, I believe the plan is for you remain a starter?

Nelson: “I loved closing — closing is a whole lot of fun — but the plan is for me to keep building on my four pitches and figure out how to get lineups out multiple times. So yes, the plan is for me to start.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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