BY STEVE KRAH
Zac Ryan does not have to be the last pitcher on the mound for his team to act like a closer.
The 6-foot-1 right-hander was selected in the 23rd round of the 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Los Angeles Angels.
Ryan was a closer at Georgia Tech where he posted a 3-5 record, 3.33 ERA and team-best five saves in 27 appearances (all in relief) as a senior. In four seasons, he was 16-12 with a 4.65 ERA and 14 saves in 89 games (77 as a reliever).
“I was really happy with my season,” says Ryan, 23, of his first pro experience. “I worked with some really good pitching coaches and coordinators. They taught us grips and different pitches and helped us get better. It wasn’t a cookie cutter type of program where they tried to get everybody to do the same thing.”
Jonathan Van Eaton and Mike Burns shared pitching coach duties for the Rookie-level Pioneer League’s Orem Owlz while Jairo Cuevas led hurlers for the Low Class-A Midwest League’s Burlington Bees. Tom Nieto was the Orem manager while Adam Melhuse was the Burlington skipper.
The Angels organization wants its pitchers to attack hitters and — when possible — get outs within the first three pitches.
“They wanted us to go 0-2 (in the count) as much as possible,” says Ryan. This approach was to keep pitch counts down and to give hitters less opportunities to see what the pitcher had to offer.
Ryan found that the big difference between college and pro ball is that minor league batters are more aggressive.
“It was easy to get people to chase pitches (for strikeouts and out pitches) in pro ball,” says Ryan. “You also had a lot more freedom (as a pro). You do what you want to do with your career, but they are going to guide you with it. In college, they give you a role.”
As an Angels farmhand, Ryan says he worked the right side of the plate often with his sinker and slider, looking for ground balls or weak contact. He also mixed in a change-up.
While his velocity sat at between 92 and 94 mph and touched 95 and 96 mph a time or two, Ryan continued to stay away from being a max-effort pitcher.
“That way I can get more movement and place it where I want to,” says Ryan. “I’m serious with mechanics. I’ve never been too jerky-jerky and had a slow wind-up and slow delivery.”
Since he reached his limit during the spring and summer, the Angels opted not to send Ryan to instructional league or winter ball. Instead, he will follow a prescribed program while also working with his personal pitching coach since age 7 — John Coddington of Michiana Sports Medicine.
“He’s like a second dad to me,” says Ryan, who lives in Chesterton and is the son of Henry and Jill Ryan and has an older sister named Kelly.
“He taught me about sequencing and how to use pitches to set up pitches,” says Ryan. “I learned a lot of about who I was as a pitcher. I never threw a slider before college. I also learned the mentality I needed to be a closer. That brought me all the success I’ve had.”
Ryan was a freshman at Andrean with a 3-1 record when the 59ers won the IHSAA Class 3A state title in 2010 for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur. Ryan was in the rotation for the season, but it was senior left-hander Sean Manaea (now with the Oakland Athletics) that took the ball in the semistate and senior right-hander Ken Mahala in the state championship game.
Ryan credits the Pishkurs — Dave and his son Ryan — for teaching him tenacity.
“They taught me how to take a leadership role,” says Ryan. “That gave ave me a lot of confidence, which is something you need on the mound.
“That program is about fighting and never quitting. That’s the biggest takeaway you get from there. And it’s any part of your life. It doesn’t have to be sports. You have to keep on pushing because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Zac Ryan, a product of Andrean High School, made his professional baseball debut in the Los Angeles Angels organization in 2017. (Burlington Bees Photo)