Tri-City Dust Devils’ pitcher Ryan Warner learned an important lesson in his first season of professional baseball.
“Live low,” said Warner, who started his career for the Colorado Rockies’ rookie-league affiliate in Grand Junction, Colo., right out of high school after being drafted in the third round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
That’s not as easy as it sounds for anyone as tall as Warner, who at 6-foot-7, towers over most Northwest League hitters. But the same tactics that used to work at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., don’t exactly translate at the pro level.
“I was talking to him about last year, and he told me he was thinking like high school. Trying to throw it past people,” said Dust Devils’ catcher Wilfredo Rodriguez, who — like Warner — was a rookie at Grand Junction last season. “This year, he became a professional pitcher. He’s trying to hit his spots and making quality pitches all the time. That’s the biggest difference.”
Warner learned some hard lessons about pitching in the Pioneer League, which features a few short fences to go with some long home runs.
“Every park was a home run park. You learned that real quick,” said Warner, who won three of his first five games last season before allowing 27 runs over his last nine games. He finished his first year 3-0 with a 7.00 ERA. “If you leave a ball up, any hitter in the league can hit a bomb. They’ve all seen fastballs in the 90s. Anything less they’re going to take out of the park.”
This season, Warner has taken what he learned and used it to adjust his approach to hitters.
He’s learned to use everything that his coaches and managers teach him, even those from the past.
“I started young with pitching coaches, and they taught me never to show emotion on the mound unless it’s really necessary. Whenever something bad happens, you just have to keep your head,” Warner said. “I’ve learned a lot from Gonzo (Tri-City pitching coach Frank Gonzales). A lot about watching tendencies of hitters and watching a hitter’s swing. That’s how you’ll be able to get them out, they’ll get themselves out.”
Gonzales, a Colorado native, watched Warner in a regional playoff game in his senior year of high school and was impressed with his maturity then. After working with Warner in extended spring training, Gonzales gained even more appreciation for him.
“He’s a real leader. He shows up every day and finds a way to get better,” Gonzales said. “He’s a former quarterback as well. We’ve actually used that analogy to help him bring that type of leadership into the field. We want to see that grittiness to reach back, pick up his team and say, ‘I got this.’ ”
Warner’s willingness to learn and work at his craft has resulted in some numbers he can be proud of.
After a slow beginning, the young right-hander had a stretch of eight quality starts, going 3-1 with a 1.89 ERA from July 7 to Aug. 11 and earned a spot in the NWL All-Star Game on Aug. 6 in Everett. He currently holds a 3-4 record with a 3.77 ERA.
Another thing Dust Devils manager Drew Saylor has noticed in Warner is a more powerful presence when he takes the mound.“He’s been allowing his inner leadership and competitiveness to come out since last year. Last year it was like, ‘Wow, these guys are really good.’ ” Saylor said. “Coming out of high school last year, he didn’t know how guys were going to receive him, but this year he had the opportunity to build relationships with guys on the staff and be more comfortable on the mound.”
That’s made for a much happier Warner, as well as some unhappy NWL hitters, especially those who tend to swing for the fences.
“I always like facing batters who are free swingers. Any time I see one, I know there’s a chance of getting them out on 1-2 pitches. You throw a fastball down, a change or a curve and they’ll hit themselves into an out.”
The only thing better than a free-swinger? Maybe a game of cards.
“I love playing cards. I can play cards all day. It keeps everybody relaxed,” Warner said. “If you have a bad outing, you can take time to talk about it while playing cards.”
Asked if playing cards can give him an edge on the mound, Warner replied, “No, it’s mostly just luck of the draw. But it also takes some skill.”
That’s something Warner would know plenty about.