There was a brief time when Joe Ryan imagined the moment occurring in a San Francisco Giants uniform, the team he grew up rooting for. Long before he was acquired in a July 2021 trade by the Twins, the Giants selected the San Anselmo, Calif., native in the 39th round of the 2014 amateur draft.
Though they discovered him late in the high school baseball season, the Giants loved what they saw and offered Ryan an enticing signing bonus. But the amount wasn’t close enough to Ryan’s demands for him to consider joining the organization that produced his pitching heroes, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and a slew of others.
Ryan instead opted for college.
Eight years and multiple stops later, the rookie finally made his triumphant return home to the Bay Area as a major leaguer. Even though it wasn’t as high profile of an event as hoped (he pitched six innings and earned the win the day before the Twins opened a three-game series at Oakland), Ryan made his first visit home an eventful one.
Ryan also made it clear has no regrets about his path to majors, either.
“I try not to look back too much,” Ryan said. “I probably used to a little more. Now I’m here and I just want to stay. So keep getting better and keep that mindset that got me here, keep that rolling. It was definitely a challenge (getting here). It was really hard. I would definitely not recommend that to a lot of people, but it’s helped me now.”
The start of Ryan’s career with the Twins has brought him well-deserved attention. The team’s Opening Day starter, Ryan has followed a solid September 2021 debut by going 5-2 with a 2.28 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings this season.
It’s the type of consideration that was missing during Ryan’s senior season at Sir Francis Drake High back in 2014. He was throwing 95 mph late in the year for a team making a playoff run. Even so, the scouts didn’t pay much attention.
Earlier that season, Ryan had mononucleosis, which caused his fastball velocity to dip to 89-91 mph. The drop-off plus playing in a relatively small conference may have prevented scouts from seeing Ryan. Late in the season, his high school coach, Andy Farb, tried to change that.
“I called a couple of scouts that I knew,” Farb said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I don’t think he’s ready for pro ball, personally, emotionally. But out of curiosity, where the heck are you guys? Because I’ve had way worse guys than this that you’ve been all over.’ … He wasn’t that much of a secret.”
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Two teams, the Giants and the Chicago Cubs, listened. Before the draft, the Cubs were the only team to conduct an at-home interview with Ryan. The Giants displayed their interest in a different way.
With their area scout committed to observing other players, then-general manager Brian Sabean dispatched one of his sons to watch Ryan pitch in a playoff game. Tired from a start a few days earlier, Ryan only threw 90-93 mph in front of the Giants emissary, but it was enough to earn him another look. Two days later, Ryan threw a brief bullpen in front of Giants area scout Keith Snider.
“I threw two pitches and they were like, ‘You’re done. You’re going to go to AT&T (the Giants ballpark) and throw in a couple of days,’” Ryan recalled.
Farb remembers how cool of an experience it was for Ryan.
He’d gone from no buzz to throwing a bullpen in front of Sabean and his most trusted advisor, former major-league pitcher Dick Tidrow. Giants manager Bruce Bochy even watched part of a workout that included 2014 first-round picks Bradley Zimmer, Derek Hill and Grant Holmes.
Ryan had grown up a diehard Giants fan. He was raised watching Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner. Ryan recalls watching future postseason hero Vogelsong carve hitters up in an outing at Triple-A Sacramento and wondering when why he wasn’t already in the majors. He loved watching Jeremy Affeldt, got a ball signed by Javier López and his friends elicited a “let’s fucking go” out of Sergio Romo during one of the World Series parades.
“I was at the game when Jonathan Sánchez hit the triple,” Ryan said of the Giants’ 2010 division-clinching victory over the San Diego Padres on the final day of the regular season.
Following the bullpen, Tidrow asked Snider how much Ryan sought. The answer was $1.8 million, though Ryan would have jumped at $900,000.
But the Giants couldn’t afford to meet Ryan’s demands. They’d used the 1,168th overall pick of the draft to select Ryan. Players selected that late rarely receive a significant signing bonus. Many times, teams use those draft slots for ceremonial picks such as selecting a general manager’s son.
The Giants offered Ryan $260,000.
“I didn’t have an agent,” Ryan said. “I didn’t think about signing out of high school. I just Googled Matt Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner’s signing bonuses and was like, ‘That’s what I want.’ They obviously said, ‘No.’
“For sure (I dreamed about signing). After I threw there, threw well and was like ‘OK, I had a really good year.’ I’d done better than most kids that are going to get drafted. I started doing research and looking and thought, ‘this is what I’m worth.’ But obviously, they have so much to do there. And knowing what I know now, there’s a lot that goes into that, a lot of stakes, a lot of jobs on the line, probably, if that goes wrong.”
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Ryan declined the Giants’ offer and opted to attend Cal State Northridge instead.
Farb thinks it was a wise decision.
“He would’ve loved it,” Farm said. “And (the Giants) would’ve done a great job. …
“It was just a needing to grow up thing. I had no doubt that the pitching side would be fine in the long run. But I personally believe that if Joe had signed out of high school, he would be in the Coast Guard right now.”
Working as a starter/reliever, Ryan pitched pretty well in his first two college seasons at CSUN. He posted a 2.55 ERA and struck out 68 batters over 70 2/3 innings. Yet he never broke through as a full-time starting pitcher. Ryan suffered a lat injury and was limited to 6 1/3 innings as a junior, opting for a medical redshirt and a transfer.
Because there was no transfer portal at the time, going to another Division I school would have cost Ryan a full year. Farb suggested Ryan instead go to Division II Cal State Stanislaus and pitch for Mike McNeil.
“I knew that he would work in a style that Joe wanted to work with,” Farb said. “I knew what I thought he needed to get back to feeling like himself. Right. Because he was going to the Cape (Cod League) and shoving and then going to college ball and not pitching well. The pitching development piece was happening. It just wasn’t translating to games.”
Everything fell into place at Stanislaus. The 22-year-old Ryan stepped into the rotation and dominated from the outset. He went 8-1 with a 1.65 ERA, a 0.83 WHIP and 127 strikeouts over 98 1/3 innings.
“Stanislaus was a great time. Best coaches. Best environment. Better facilities. Better playing surface. Better field. Everything was better. It was a better fit for me. It made more sense. The best spot I could ask going into the draft,” he said.
Tampa Bay used the 210th pick of the 2018 draft to take Ryan in the seventh round, four spots ahead of current Twins teammate Josh Winder. Ryan dominated throughout 2019, striking out a combined 183 batters with a 1.96 ERA over 123 2/3 innings in a season that started at Low A and ended at Double A.
Though Ryan’s 2020 campaign was wiped out by the pandemic, he began last season at Triple A before pitching for Team USA at the Summer Olympics. But Ryan’s opportunities were limited by a franchise loaded with arms.
While in Tokyo, Ryan was acquired by the Twins, who have been very pleased with their young starter. Among many attributes, the Twins have discovered how quickly Ryan adapts.
Ryan’s slider wasn’t very effective in a May 10 loss to the Houston Astros, which in part led to him issuing a career-high five walks. In his next bullpen, Ryan worked on command and has issued only two walks over the past 11 2/3 innings.
Improving the slider has been a big focus of the Twins this season with Ryan, who threw fastballs 66 percent of the time in 2021. In an attempt to hone his secondary pitches, Ryan has increased usage of his slider and changeup by a combined 10 percent.
“Joe’s especially good (limiting ups and downs),” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s good with it mid-game when making adjustments and he’s done a pretty good job in between starts. (Joe) takes a lot of pride in what he does. It does feel like his swings up and down are fast. He just kind of stays himself and is pitching well.”
Ryan even handled his toughest personal adjustment well. He wanted more than anything to pitch at home in the cool Northern California air in front of his grandmother, who has yet to see him pitch in the majors. Ryan had been in line to open the Twins series at Oakland on May 16. Then another rotation mate suffered an injury and Ryan’s start was pushed up one day to May 15.
Despite his disappointment, Ryan was outstanding for six innings in a victory over Cleveland.
Then he made the most of his extra free time at home.
Ryan woke up early on May 16 and visited his family, including going to lunch with his dad in San Anselmo. The following day, Ryan and his former high school water polo coach, Matt Swanson, had a chance to take a dip in the Pacific Ocean. With only a bullpen session to throw and his off-day routine to keep, Ryan also visited numerous friends and family members in the stands before each of the team’s games against the A’s.
“I would have loved the opportunity to pitch,” Ryan said. “It would have been cool.”
(Photo: Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)