Ryne Stanek was the Tampa Bay Rays’ most-frequently-used opener in 2018. The 27-year-old right-hander made 29 such appearances, throwing two-or-fewer-innings on each occasion. He was also utilized as a conventional reliever. Stanek strolled out of the bullpen 30 such times, usually in the seventh or eighth inning.
He was good in both roles. All told, the former Arkansas Razorback logged a 2.98 ERA while allowing just 45 hits and fanning 81 in 66.1 frames.
Usage aside, he’s a very different pitcher than he once was. Drafted 29th overall by the Rays in 2013, Stanek was originally groomed as a starter. Moreover, his M.O. was to locate his high-octane heater down in the zone. Ground balls were a goal.
His two-seamer became history a few years ago. A dip, followed by a rise, played a role. So did TrackMan readings.
“Coming off hip surgery [in December 2013], my velo was down a lot from what it had been,” explained Stanek. “I don’t know why, it just was. I’d thrown all two-seams in college, and I think my sinker played pretty well, but when I started throwing harder again, they decided a four-seamer would be a better weapon.”
Stanek’s four-seam spin rate was in the 81st percentile (per StatCast) this past season. His average velocity with the pitch was a crisp 98.4 mph, and he’s reportedly been clocked as high as 103.
The first time I spoke to Stanek was in 2017, a few days after he’d been taken deep on a triple digits fastball. Location and consistency being paramount for a pitcher, it wasn’t the first time he’d suffered that indignity.
“I’ve actually given up two this year on pitches 100-or-above,” the righty informed me. “That’s not … I mean, it sucks, but the hitters here are really good. One thing I’ve come to learn at this level is that velocity doesn’t always win.”
Kyle Snyder, Tampa Bay’s Triple-A pitching coach at the time, had been in his ear. Helping him make the transition from two-seam starter to four-seam reliever, Snyder explained that not all spin is created equal.
“In Durham, he was always telling me that spin rate is one thing, but creating usable spin is more important,” Stanek said in our 2017 conversation. “If your spin isn’t on an axis where it’s going to maximize the carry on your fastball — if it’s off to the side at, say, one o’clock — then the ball is going to start going arm side more. It’s going to go horizontal instead of ride, and that’s not what you want.”
Fast forward to this past August. Now that he was well on his way to establishing himself as a quality big-league hurler, I asked Stanek to look in the rear-view and re-examine his transitional travails. He’d finished the big-league portion of his 2017 season with a 5.85 ERA in 20 innings, spread out over 21 appearances.
“It was my first full year in the bullpen, and the first time they wanted me to really focus on getting carry on the ball,” answered Stanek. “It was one of those things where I knew how to do it, but I just wasn’t as repeatable with my delivery yet. Having been a sinker guy as a starter, I think old habits may have kind of led to some of that inconsistency with my spin. And being young, I was kind of trying to piece together who I was on the mound. I have a lot better idea of that now.”
Snyder can attest to that. Having replaced Jim Hickey as the Rays’ pitching coach prior to last season, he saw Stanek’s developmental strides up close. It’s safe to say that he was impressed.
“He has above-average spin, and he’s not wasting nearly as much of it this year as he probably has in the past,” shared Snyder. “It’s not flattening out as much. We talked a lot about spin efficiency last year, and about getting his hand behind the ball. He’s been a lot more consistent with his carry, and just as importantly, the development of his secondary pitches, both his split and his slider, is really eye-opening.”
Looking at the numbers, Stanek threw his slider 26% of the time in 2018. He threw his splitter (we’ll hear the story behind it when the Learning and Developing a Pitch series resumes) 14% of the time. Like Snyder, he attributes much of his success to those secondaries. As he put it, “You could throw 110 [mph], but if you threw that 100% of the time, hitters at this level are going to hit you. The ability to throw something else is vital to survivability in this game.”
Based on what he’s accomplished over the past year, Stanek promises to do a lot more than simply survive in the foreseeable future, regardless of the role the ever-innovative Rays choose to use him in.
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.