Command and Conquer, the Story of Ryan Merritt
Danny Madden | On 14, Jul 2015
As a pitcher is growing up, the first skill that they are taught is the ability of how to throw a strike. As time moves on, you begin to move away from just throwing a strike with a fastball, to throwing strikes with a variety of pitches. From there, you begin to take that knowledge and enhance your view of the batter at the plate, and find ways to get them to turn what should be called a ball outside, to a swinging strike by the batter. For some, that takes longer than others to adjust their mentality to this type of approach. For lefty Ryan Merritt, he’s starting to figure out why he needs to make this adjustment.
Merritt, 23, was drafted by the Indians in the sixteenth round of the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft. He’s been in the Indians system since 2011 where he appeared in four games for Arizona rookie league. He’s spent parts of four season with short season Mahoning Valley, Low-A Lake County, High-A Carolina, and now Double-A Akron. In 2014, Merritt was awarded the Bob Feller award for being the best pitcher in the Indians minor league system. The year before this award was given to current big league starter Cody Anderson.
In 2014, he posted an outstanding ERA of 2.58, a record of 13-3 in 25 games. In those 25 games, he pitched a total of 160.1 innings, racked up 127 strikeouts to only 25 walks. Merritt is kind of a smaller guy. He build is unlike a lot of pitchers. Due to his size, he tends to stay around the 90’s for his fastball, but his ability to control his pitches is what makes him so effective. He’s got a very similar build to fellow Cleveland Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin. Well, aside from the fact that Merritt toes from the left side of the rubber.
With Merritt having such excellent control of his pitches, he knows that he can really pound any spot of the strikezone at will. This can create trouble though for Merritt if the batters begin to realize what he’s doing out on the mound. For Merritt, he was taught to throw strikes, and strikes alone, and that’s what’s made him effective. That was until he reached the Double-A level.
“My whole life I’ve been taught to throw strikes, and throwing strikes is key. I feel like I’ve had to learn how to throw balls on purpose,” Merritt said.
When you’re a kid, if someone told you to throw a ball to the other guy at the plate, you’d think he was crazy. Strikes are what get batters out, not balls. That’s not how it works in the big leagues though. You need to know how to setup batters to swing and miss, and know when to pound the strikezone. Merritt has been learning the hard way of how to make this transition.
“Throwing balls with intent to set guys up to make the zone bigger. Getting more swing and misses out of the zone. That has definitely been a challenge for me as I’m learning how to throw balls also,” Merritt said.
In April of this season, Merritt posted an ERA of 3.00 in four starts. He pitched in 27 innings and struck out 18 and only walked 2. Once May rolled around though, Merritt began to struggle. In five starts he had an ERA of 4.97. He only threw 29 innings, and struck out 14 while still only walking 5 batters.
During this time in May, Merritt began to realize that he wasn’t going to be able to just hang out in the strikezone with his pitches, he had to make some adjustments. We got to experience his adjustment period in May, according to manager David Wallace.
“Anytime you’re making adjustments, there’s uncomfortableness that you go through in that adjustment period. That’s tough to take out to a game sometimes when you’re trying perform and put up good stats and all that. I give him a lot of credit for putting that all aside and willing to go out there and work on that adjustment during his outings,” Wallace said.
Merritt credits some of his struggles in May to his movement to a much stronger league than in High-A Carolina.
“Getting used to these hitters was a little difficult for me. Learning how to not make as many mistakes in a game. These hitters, they capitalize on mistakes more times than the lower level hitters,” Merritt said.
There was a reason that Merritt was awarded the Bob Feller award last season, because he is one of the best pitchers in the Indians minor league season. He’s intelligent enough to understand when he needs to change his mechanics in order to succeed, and that’s exactly what he’s done. June was a much better month for Merritt.
In the month of June, he spotted an ERA of 2.88 in 5 games where he pitched 34.1 innings. During that span he struck out 18 and only walked 3 batters. His work in May has obviously worked out for him as he’s looking like he’s returning back to the pitcher he was in 2014. With his small frame, he has to find a way to generate some power, which was part of his adjustment period that he was working on. Even still, his velocity will never be as fast as someone like Danny Salazar or Yordano Ventura, but he doesn’t really need to.
“He does need to be able to throw intentional balls when he needs to and set up other pitches. You know, going up and in on guys, to get down and away, or just inch it out to get someone away then bust them in. He’s done a great job of that. Even though his fastball is not 95, he pitches with his fastball, and everything comes off his fastball,” Wallace said.
Merritt’s brilliance on the mound has continued into July as well. On Saturday, July 11, Merritt pitched in the first game of was to be a double header against Philadelphia Phillies affiliate the Reading Fightin Phils. During those seven innings, Merritt threw the first no hitter in Akron since 2012 when Giovanni Soto threw one. This is the type of achievement that has been seen by many pitchers, even in the big league.
“It was great. To be able to do that, and I know it’s not done very often, but I’m just going to look at this game and look at it to help my career in the long run. Not just look at it as one game and turn it into a positive for the rest of the season,” Merritt said.
Not only were all of his pitches working for him during this outing, but he was able to utilize them when he needed them to, along with having a great defense behind him to back him.
“He was in control of his command in all of his pitches. Using everything. There were a couple of really nice defensive plays behind him,” Wallace said. “Obviously a lot of credit to Merritt, but he used his defense well and some guys backed him up in the field. In no hitters, that’s usually the case.”
The Indians are starting to see the emergence of a lot of young pitchers in their farm system. With the likes of Adam Plutko, Michael Clevinger, and Ryan Merritt, they have some strong options for depth with the big league club. With how solid the Indians rotation has been this year, this allows these young pitchers to be able to mature and perfect themselves before needing to be called up to the big league club. Among the guys that are in Akron, Merritt is one of the more promising options.
His command from the left side is something to be excited about. He’s adjusting, and he’s improving, and eventually we’ll all be seeing him in The Show.
Photo: Dave Monseur/MiLB.com