San Bernardino, California —— It’s not every week that you get a Monday morning 10:30 am game on the schedule. If you can make it out of bed in time to stumble into the ballpark, you’re guaranteed a crowd-free, sun-kissed ballgame that more often than not turns into a pitcher’s duel.
“These are the kinds of games where I tell these guys, now is the perfect time to throw a no-hitter,” Visalia Rawhide pitching coach Jeff Bajenaru joked with me before his team’s Monday day game on the road against the Inland Empire 66ers, alluding to the tendency for hitters to take bad, impatient approaches during early day games. And while Bajenaru’s starting pitcher that day—Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Ryan Atkinson—didn’t quite throw a no-hitter, seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball nevertheless made a big statement from a pitcher who maybe shouldn’t even be here.
The short version of Atkinson’s story is fascinating: a four-year starter at the University of Cincinnati, he didn’t get drafted after college ended and so he figured his baseball career was over, taking the next year to start working as a personal trainer and nutritionist in his native Ohio. He got the urge to pitch again one full year after college, only to learn that he had just a few days to prepare for an independent league tryout after not picking up a baseball for twelve months. Yeah.
Even through that, he parlayed the tryout day into signing with a Frontier League team, only to get almost immediately plucked out of the independent leagues by the Arizona Diamondbacks after exactly two outings for those Evansville Otters. Shipped off to rookie ball, Atkinson made stops in the Arizona League and the Pioneer League last year, before transitioning to full-season ball in 2017. Now, he’s starting to hit his stride.
Today, Atkinson is almost on cruise control pitching for the Rawhide: through seven starts with Visalia entering play on Thursday, he’s 3-2 with a 3.11 ERA, and he’s whiffed 49 against 17 walks in 37.2 innings pitched while allowing only 27 hits. Overall, adding in four early season starts with the Low-A Kane County Cougars, Atkinson is 5-3 with a 3.59 ERA in 11 starts in 2017, with 69 strikeouts in 57.2 innings pitched against just 46 hits and 24 walks. To be fair, he’s 24 years old, so he ought to be succeeding across two A-ball stops this year, but for an undrafted former indy league pitcher who took a full year off of baseball after college, this is a big deal and a feel-good story.
Ryan Atkinson scouting report — Notes
So how is Atkinson doing this well in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization, anyways?
Well, it starts with his fastball, an 88-92 mph offering that will touch 93 mph. That velocity alone isn’t eye-popping, but it’s good, and it’s enough to keep Atkinson above water, especially if his command profile remains strong into the high minors. There are a few wrinkles to his fastball, too; the righty doesn’t really throw anything straight, with one two-seam offering that runs back and sinks slightly with a good arm-side fade, and a second cut version of the pitch that moves late and glove-side, almost like a slider at times. By using both versions of the pitch, he ought to be able to match up well against both righties and lefties, and considering his arm action is such that he hides the ball well from hitters on both sides of the plate, he should be able to continue to start games for the foreseeable future with it.
Here’s a good example of the arm-side run and sink on his two-seamer:
And here’s a relatively tame version of the glove-side cut on his fastball the other way:
Apart from the fastball, Atkinson also shows off a good overhand curveball that sits 75-79 mph. He’ll throw a couple that are slurve-y with lazy, early break, but when he gets on top of the pitch and throws it hard, he can snap it off and it’s given him a legitimate strikeout pitch that has good vertical drop and late movement. It spins very tightly and his hand speed—when right—is identical to his fastball, so it’s a tough pitch to recognize at release. Oh, and there’s this: every so often, he’ll throw one that’s spinning so tightly and with such arm pronation after release that it almost breaks backwards like a screwball. Don’t take my word for it, though; watch the late action on this pitch. It’s more likely that’s a relatively rare product of good pronation and a high spin rate than it is a purposeful screwball, but it’s an interesting wrinkle on what could become an above-average pitch for the righty.
Past the curveball, Atkinson also throws a 76-78 mph changeup, and while it didn’t impress initially on Monday, it really grew on me as the Arizona Diamondbacks prospect’s seven innings of work went on. By the end of the outing, Atkinson had turned form his curveball to his changeup as a go-to pitch once ahead in the count, and the change showed great tumble and fade. He sells it well with very good arm speed and generally good extension, and he’s confident to use it to pitch to contact and to miss bats, a good combination for a starting pitcher needing a third wrinkle to get through a lineup several times. I think it’s got a chance to be an above-average pitch, if not a legitimately plus offering, assuming Atkinson can continue to show good command of it.
To watch more of Ryan Atkinson’s work from Monday’s start, here’s our video of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ pitcher’s pre-game bullpen work and in-game mechanics:
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Ryan Atkinson scouting report — projection & future
There is still work to be done for Ryan Atkinson, of course. His command must remain above-average and even improve from here, because his velocity is pedestrian. His curveball is good when it’s released right, but he’s inconsistent in throwing it hard and he’s liable to leave a few breaking slowly and gradually rather than falling off the table. He’s old for Visalia, and thus must prove his good run this year can continue in Double-A at some point in the second half, or in 2018, against more age-appropriate competition.
But considering where he came from, Ryan Atkinson is already a development win for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He’s got great pitchability thanks to age and experience gained in 145 innings of NCAA Division I work through college, and he has the arsenal to set up hitters and remain a starter for the time being if his command continues to cooperate. I’ll dive into his personal story some more later in the summer when I (hopefully) get a chance to interview him upon seeing more of Visalia, but for now, his early success is a credit to his ability to throw strikes and change speeds with some wrinkles in his repertoire. He’ll be better served still by working with a talented development guy like Bajenaru for the foreseeable future in Visalia.
No, Ryan Atkinson is not a top-30 prospect, and his road to the big leagues is still on a significantly uphill plane, but his early success here in the California League is a feel-good story and could be the makings of far more. For the moment, just as they did with Drew Muren last year, it appears the Arizona Diamondbacks had made another shrewd move in plucking a promising, over-looked pitcher out of an independent league.
In this Arizona Diamondbacks / Ryan Atkinson scouting report analysis: