The first thing about Ryne Harper can’t be avoided. It’s his name. We natives of the South have gotten used to some words having multiple syllables in places that the dictionary couldn’t possibly imagine. But this native of NW Tennessee – Clarksville, specifically – has quite the opposite situation: one single syllable. So it comes out like “Rhine” … if you can imagine this with a Southern drawl extending the pronunciation for a couple of seconds.
Ryne Harper is a 25-1/2 year old right-handed relief pitcher with the AA Braves whose resume and throwing motion are enimgas. How he got to the Braves is rather interesting to begin with. How he’s stuck is even more interesting.
Getting Ryne Harper
But his Dad knew somebody… who knew a scout… who put a tip in to the Braves that Ryne might be a guy to think about if they didn’t have any better ideas for picks late in the draft.
The Atlanta Braves, drafting in the 25th position of the 37th round, took him. Not exactly high expectations, eh? But sometimes all you need is a chance.
The Harper Schtick
The one thing that did stand out about Ryne in his college stats was control: he was walking fewer than 3 per 9 innings and striking out nearly 11. Not shabby for a guy who even then was a relief pitcher.
So naturally, as he tells me, the first thing he did after being drafted was to change his throwing motion.
“Wait, what?? You changed your motion after being drafted??” Nobody does that!
“I used to get my arm out of my glove a little late, so all right, I’m just gonna over-exaggerate a bit – I’m just going to take it out instantly and just put it straight down. It just kinda stuck and now it just feels like I’m being normal.”
Turns out that this seems to be the key to what has made this 37th round pick not just somebody ‘hanging around’, but actually excelling at his craft. Notice that he used the phrase “feels… normal”. He agreed with me that this is exactly what helps to make the motion repeatable and consistent. This in turn has obviously helped him to maintain his control despite the change.
>> UPDATE: Video of Harper’s throwing motion now up at our facebook site.
But what this new motion provides is deception, and he uses it for every pitch (fastball, curve and change-up). He’s not an overpowering guy, but like Alex Wood, this change means that hitters are getting a decidedly different look out of Harper, which seems to bring their bats to the hitting zone a little late… and perhaps in a different place from what they might have expected. That might not work for a 2-pitch relief specialist, but since Harper uses 3 offerings, it provides yet another means for guesswork from the opposition.
This young man carries himself with some confidence, too. And why not? As a full-time pitcher, this motion has worked at virtually every level thus far: 0.59 ERA in 2011, 2.73 in 2012, 1.79 in 2013, and a bit of an aberration in 2014 – up to a still-solid 2.65 ERA (though his K’s are up and WHIP is essentially the same). In fact, he’s striking out hitter at the same rate he did in college - 11+ per 9 innings… at the AA level.
So that begs the question: with all the bullpen needs that Atlanta has had this year, why is Ryne Harper still at AA Mississippi… for a second full season??
I asked that very question to Kyle Tait, radio voice of the M-Braves: was it too many RH arms already at AAA? Did he kick Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker’s dog? Or… was there something going on that the Braves wanted to do here with this particular Mississippi Braves club?
Creating a Team
Seems that the last option might be at work here. In 2009, the Mississippi Braves had an interesting group of players on the roster. See if you can recognize some of them:
- Jason Heyward
- Freddie Freeman
- Gorkys Hernandez
- Brandon Hicks
- Craig Kimbrel
- Jonny Venters
- Cory Gearrin
- Scott Diamond
Many of these guys were “brought up together” in the farm program. It was a way to build a winning atmosphere, team chemistry, shared experiences, and the whole team concept. Some didn’t make it to the majors with Atlanta, but many did – and obviously some are still there.
Asst. GM Bruce Manno is the executive in charge of player development for the Braves. This necessarily includes the planning for putting together the ‘programs’ for individual players, but also for the organization of teams in the entire minor league system.
Evidence suggests to me that the Braves really believe they have yet another great group of future Atlanta Braves’ players stacked here at Pearl, Mississippi… just waiting in the wings to graduate over the next couple of years.
At the beginning of the year, I wrote the following about this club:
“This team will live and die with its pitching – honestly not very much offensive potential. Look for Hursh and maybe a couple of the other pitchers to move up through this year. Definitely hoping that Graham regains his promise. Others may be replaced if Lynchburg turns out to be as good a cradle as Ben suggested.”
So what has happened to make me think there’s a Master Plan as work? Here’s just a few highlights:
- Myke Jones was pulled back to AA to improve the offense after starting on the Gwinnett roster with an injury.
- The prophetic call-ups did occur: Jose Peraza, Kyle Wren, and Greg Ross – just to name three.
- Neither Jason Hursh nor Williams Perez were promoted – despite solid years.
- James Hoyt was just brought back from AAA for the final weekend to support the playoff push.
Tait’s take is that Ryne Harper is acting out his role as part of this bigger philosophy – perhaps being held back just a bit in order to keep this core group together – which has the effect of producing a really good squad at AA this year, plus providing the promise of better things to come by growing their own prospects for a trip to Atlanta – probably sometime in 2015 to 2016.
Who are these future core players? This probably isn’t even a complete list – especially on the pitching side.
- Jose Peraza
- Kyle Wren – who I think is better than I had guessed.
- Jason Hursh
- Greg Ross
- Williams Perez
- Kyle Kubitza
- Ryne Harper
- J.R. Graham (who is now a relief pitcher, by the way)
- Brandon Cunniff
- any one of 2 or 3 additional middle infielders
This is a team built around speed, defense, OBP and pitching… with hitters that generally do a lot more hitting than carrying their bats back to the dugout. That’s something to really get excited about for Braves’ fans!
This story is about introducing you to Ryne Harper, but in digging about him, I learned even more about the Braves. It isn’t necessarily about a single player or a single team: it’s also about a group – an organization. There is a plan… one that likely has to constantly be tweaked as players live up to expectations or (sometimes) don’t reach goals. But if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, the overall attempt to develop a cohesive group of home-grown Braves players is a plan that is fully alive and well – and living at AA Mississippi.
How’s that plan working? The 2014 Mississippi Braves, despite stumbling to a 6-12 start, completely reversed that and have a franchise record 81-55 record. They are still going to have to finish strong to make the playoffs, but it’s still a testimony to the blueprints being set forth.
The upshot? 2016 is looking pretty good.