I had the chance to talk with Cardinals pitching prospect Ryan Helsley earlier this week about this past season and his expectations for the future. You can read his scouting report here and our interview with him from last year here. You can follow him on twitter @_RHelsley. Below is the bulk of our interview.
VEB: In 2016, you dominated in Peoria with an excellent strikeout-to-walk rate and an ERA below two. You followed that up last season pitching very well at High-A Palm Beach, earning a promotion to Double-A, pitching very well there, and even getting a start at Memphis at the end of the year. Do you consider the year a success? Were there any goals you didn’t meet?
RH: I think it was really successful in my eyes. Started off in Palm Beach and getting up to Double-A. I don’t ever try to cap my goals and don’t ever try to limit myself but Triple-A was a little bit of a surprise. It was definitely a good year for me. Healthy all year. Competed every start. Definitely a good year.
VEB: One aspect of the minors, particularly for the Cardinals, is that jump from Palm Beach to Springfield. You are moving up a level in competition and also moving from a pitcher’s park to a hitter’s park. Are you aware of the change in park and is there anything you do differently to compensate? How did you adjust to the promotion?
RH: No. I didn’t really think about it. I just try to take things one pitch at a time, one batter at time, one out at a time, not thinking too far ahead, but you know where you’re pitching. That part always helps you figure out what you have to do to succeed. The promotion was fun. I got some advice that it’s still baseball. You still have to throw strikes, and that helped out a lot.
VEB: I’m not sure if you are aware of a series on FanGraphs called the Fringe Five, but writer Carson Cistulli profiles players every week who have been so far ignored by prospect services, placing them outside of any top-100 lists. Despite choosing players outside of traditional prospect lists, he’s picked up early on guys like Mookie Betts, Danny Salazar, and Jose Ramirez. Last season, you were the player featured most in the Fringe Five. Have you heard of that.? Is that type of attention meaningful to you any way?
RH: I hadn’t really ever heard of it. Our assistant pitching coordinator Paul Davis had mentioned it once in passing so that was the only time I had heard of it. I put in a lot of hard work and dedicated a lot of my time so it is satisfying knowing that it is being recognized.
VEB: A year ago you said your strengths “would be my fastball and then my changeup. My curveball is coming along. My offspeed could always get better and being able to locate my fastball better.” You rated your changeup ahead of your curveball. A year later, how are things the same or different heading into this year.
RH: My fastball played well this year. Even though my walks were up a tad bit i felt like i threw the ball well. My curveball came a long way this year. i was a lot more consistent with it. Some games you lose the feel sometimes or it isn’t good or a as sharp.
My changeup was more consistent this year. I think it was better than last year. Threw it for a lot more strikes, got more swings and misses. When I went to Double-A, mixing those three pitches really helped me succeed.
When I moved up to Double-A, I started throwing a cutter. Just having that fourth pitch there for show and to throw it for strikes really helped me out, too.
VEB: This past year was the first I had heard about you throwing a cutter. How long were you were working on it before you threw it in games, and how did the whole process come about?
RH: When you move up the competition gets better. You don’t need necessarily more pitches, but better pitches to get guys out. For me to have a fourth pitch that I felt like that would help me come off my fastball--and play off my fastball really well--was a no-brainer for me to add in there.
I would play catch with it probably every day--throw it a few times for the past couple years--but i never really threw it in games until I got to Double-A. I think just playing with it every day, trying new grips and stuff really helped my pitch progress. It was really helpful for me in moving forward this year and allowed me to have success with it.
VEB: Was it a decision you made when you were going up to Double-A? Was it somebody on the coaching staff or a catcher? How did the decision come about to first debut it?
RH: I kind of started to throw it a couple times in Palm Beach, but they wanted me to throw my changeup and curve a lot more. The staff was really adamant about wanting me to save that until the hitters were at a higher level and only use it when I would need it more. When I got there I felt like it was time to break it out. I threw it 10-15% of the time and it was really good and helpful pitch to mix in in a hitters count or a strikeout pitch so it turned out good for me.
VEB: When we look at what is going on in Major League Baseball, we are seeing a lot more home runs being hit. One of the weapons a pitcher has to combat players swinging for the fences is a high fastball that is hard to catch up to, which you have. Is that something you pay attention to? Have you noticed players are trying to get the ball in the air in the minors?
RH: I think over the past couple years you definitely notice that guys have tried to elevate the ball more. We have pitchers meetings to try and help you understand--if you don’t already--what type of pitcher you really are. I’ve always kind of known that I have a higher spin fastball, and I can attack guys up in the zone. I really try to utilize that to help me out and have success.
VEB: What do the Cardinals have you working on in the offseason?
RH: We have an app on our phone where we can contact our strength coach. It’s really cool because we can kind of personalize our workouts. Its’ not just one workout that 200 guys follow. You can give it input and tell it what you like don’t like and what you want to work on. It works out really well to have a customized workout for the offseason.
VEB: Do you know yet if you are going to start winter in major league camp with the Cardinals?
RH: Yes, I will be attending the big league camp coming up here in the next month or so.
VEB: You’ve had two successful years in a row. What does a successful 2018 look like for you? Where are you hoping to start? Probably hoping to see St. Louis later this year?
RH: Yeah. Definitely. I don’t really know where i’ll start. That’s kind of out of my hands. I think I put forward a good 2017 campaign. I’m hoping to start in Memphis, but my ultimate goal is to finish in St. Louis and help the big team gets some wins.
Thanks to Ryan for taking some time out of his offseason to catch up with us.