Since being drafted out of Arknasas in 2013, Ryne Stanek has had a tumultous career in the Rays organization. The righty had hip labrum surgery after being drafted, which delayed his career in the Rays minor leagues.
In 2014, Stanek flashed both impressive numbers and stuff in Class-A Bowling Green, posting a 9.27 K/9 while hitting 96 on his fastball. However, he struggled mightily in three starts with Class-A Advanced Charlotte, actually walking batters more than striking them out. A shoulder injury shelved him for a month and a half while with the Stone Crabs.
After a solid start to the year in Charlotte, Stanek struggled again in Double-A Montgomery. He posted a 5.01 WHIP with the Biscuits, and some (including myself) started to doubt Stanek as a prospect, let alone as a starter.
The team began Stanek’s transition to the bullpen in the last month of the Southern Leauge, making eight relief appearances. Stanek did nothing to inspire confidence, showing little control with a 12.5% walk percentage and a 1.29 WHIP. While a 2.89 ERA didn’t look too bad at first glance, it was clear Stanek was still struggling.
Prospect experts showed their lack of confidence in Stanek after his struggles in his first two pro seasons. Dan Farnsworth of Fangraphs rated Stanek as a 40-grade prospect as a “likely future grade”, and John Sickels of SB Nation’s Minor League Ball gave him a C+ grade. Both expressed the notion that Stanek would look better in the bullpen long-term.
Stanek had mixed results as a starter to start off this season, posting an excellent 10.89 K/9 but also leaving just 68.3% of batters on base in 11 starts for Montgomery.
With Stanek continuing to struggle, it was clear he could no longer last in the rotation. He made his first bullpen appearance this year June 8, allowing just one unearned run in three innings of work.
As a whole, Stanek has improved mightily in the bullpen this year. He allowed a run in only two of his seven relief appearances with Montgomery, and opposing hitters had only a .148 average against him.
One thing to note about Stanek’s resurgence is the fact that he has produced far more ground balls. Below, you can see the contrast between Stanek’s ground ball rate before and after his transition to the bullpen this season. He went from 50% to nearly 61% after moving into his relief role. Considering Stanek has struggled with the long ball in the past, keeping balls on the ground should do wonders for him.
Stanek’s lone area of struggle is his control, as he is still walking 9.3% of opposing batters. However, seeing the progress he made in other aspects of his game should give those who doubted him (which includes myself) some hope for the soon-to-be 25-year old.
It should be noted that transitioning to the bullpen shouldn’t diminish his prospect value too much. Even just a 50-grade prospect could be considered a closer according to Fangraphs, and Stanek has that upside - if not more - if this success continues.
As Stanek transitions to the bullpen, his best assets - his fastball and slider - should play up since he doesn’t have to pitch as long in games. As he transitions to Triple-A Durham, the 2013 first-rounder should look to hone in his control. Considering the volatility of relief pitchers, Stanek could be in the majors sooner than we realize if his success continues.