Photo credit: Jeff Nycz (Mid-South Images)
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — After 19 years in the major leagues, David Weathers acknowledges one thing: he could not hit. Although he spent the majority of his career pitching in relief, he mustered over 160 plate appearances and only 14 hits, two of which went for extra bases. When he and his son, Ryan Weathers, reflected on video of Ryan’s first professional starts in their hometown of Loretto, Tenn., David knew Ryan’s repertoire needed to evolve.
“If I could see [Ryan’s curveball] coming out of his hand,” David said. “A really good hitter was definitely going to see it.”
Last season, Ryan threw a fastball, changeup and curveball from a middle-three-quarters arm slot. To achieve his desired curveball break, he found himself wrapping his wrist to stay on top of the ball and unintentionally slowing his arm down. As a result, hitters had a greater chance of noticing his breaking ball out of his hand—a substantial advantage.
Ryan and his father spent the offseason discussing a potential switch to a slider. The offering required less wrapping of the wrist and more naturally flowed from his arm slot. Two starts into 2019, Ryan’s offseason work and embrace of his slider have stymied the Midwest League. The southpaw has 17 strikeouts to zero walks in 11 innings and more room to grow at only 19 years old.
One month before Ryan reported to Arizona for his first spring training with the Padres, he and his father progressed from discussion to implementation. Catch became long toss and long toss became bullpens. He started his early work off a mound by featuring his fastball and changeup before breaking out his new slider with a grip he inherited.
David had a slider throughout his career, but when the Marlins traded him to the Yankees in July 1996, he tweaked the pitch with the help of pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. The grip he showed David is the one David passed to Ryan. All it took was a minor movement up the horseshoe of the baseball from Ryan’s curveball grip.
“I just went up a little on the ball,” Ryan said “I can put pressure out here [with my middle finger] and just let [my index finger] stay there.”
When Ryan started throwing his new slider, David honed in on three points that convinced him this pitch would be successful. First, the pitch came out of the same slot as Ryan’s fastball and changeup. The slider successfully eliminated the curveball wrap that rendered his pervious breaking ball ineffective. Second, the pitch lacked a red “dot” created by the spin of the baseball’s seams—a visible queue from a hitter’s perspective that the pitch is a slider. The lack of this dot meant a hitter would struggle to notice a difference in spin out of Ryan’s hand. Third, he could mimic his old curveball action through his slider as a slower, get-me-over pitch if needed.
“It’s really consistent and a much easier grip to be able to add and subtract speed,” David said.
Ryan’s old curveball sat in the high 70s, but his new slider ranges from 79 to 86 mph and sits 82-83 mph. While the velocity range of all his pitches is now smaller, how each pitch tunnels from the same release point trumps other particulars.
After facing live hitters in Tennessee and receiving positive feedback, Ryan ventured to Arizona for spring training. The Padres player development staff encouraged his newfound slider, according to Ryan. He threw the pitch throughout spring training and received an added boost of confidence when he faced higher-level hitters live.
“My first start of the year was against Double-A and Triple-A guys, an inter-squad,” Ryan said. “And my slider was working on them and I’m like, these guys are really good hitters and I’m getting strikes with it and bad swings.”
Ryan proceeded through natural growing pains with the offering after immediate success, but during his last two spring starts before heading northeast for the Tin Caps home opener April 4, he found his groove. His roommate and daily throwing partner, Tin Caps right-hander Gabe Mosser, endorsed the pitch after hearing about Ryan’s offseason development.
“It’s good action, it’s late, it’s tight spin,” said Mosser. “It will take a couple starts for sure, to be able to put it where he wants to, really feel the release point.”
After every bullpen and start with the Tin Caps, Ryan talks with his father on the phone, discussing everything from arm health to specific pitch choices from an outing. David checks in regularly on the progress with Ryan’s slider as well. His questions focus on Ryan’s feel for the pitch out of his hand and where he is aiming in relation to where he wants the pitch to finish.
If Ryan is trying to bury a right-handed hitter with the offering, he will aim at the top right shoulder of his catcher and let his slider ride to the hitter’s back foot.
Ryan’s confidence with the pitch in only two starts with the Tin Caps has evolved from throwing sliders that start off the plate and move across the outside corner to right-handed hitters (back door) to pitches that start off the inside corner to left-handed hitters and move back over the plate (front door).
“[Apr. 10], that was the first time all year I tried to finish guys with a front-door slider,” Ryan said. “It’s just been back door, back door, and then toss a front door in there and it just freezes them.”
As Ryan’s confidence with the pitch evolves and he masters sequencing, his father stresses a point connecting back to his childhood.
“[Ryan’s] bread and butter is still his fastball,” David said. “It’s hard not to fall in love with a pitch you can dominate with, so my thing to him was make sure the slider stays in its proper place—you’re still a fastball-first pitcher and everything else is off of that.”
Ryan did not throw a breaking ball until he was 16 years old. During his youth, if he threw 80 pitches in an outing, 70 would be fastballs and the other 10 would be changeups. David recalls times when scouts would see Ryan in high school and mention the lack of a developed curveball, to which David would cite Ryan’s lack of experience with the pitch. This allowed the southpaw to develop an innate feel for commanding his fastball a trait many high-velocity pitchers below the age of 20 lack.
“All this stuff he’s learning is new,” David said. “We protected his arm the best we could, but that’s why I feel like his fastball has such great command, we limited him to two pitches.”
“I have confidence in my fastball and changeup, and that’s been my bread and butter,” Ryan added. “But to make that jump you gotta have two swing-and-miss pitches.”
After an offseason of development with his father, Ryan now has his sights set on further refinement of his slider. His ultimate goal of establishing himself as a true three-pitch starter is within grasp. From there, the sky is the limit.