Ryan, Jays ready for spring games
Closer scheduled to appear in Wednesday's opener vs. Yankees
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The last person Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg is worried about is B.J. Ryan. The closer is coming off his first regular winter routine in three seasons and has already been impressing the club early on this spring.
Two winters ago, Ryan was still making his way back from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and trying to get a feel for pitching again. Now that is fast becoming a distant memory for Ryan, who is hoping to return to the type of dominating and intimidating stopper he was for the Jays after first signing with the club.
Arnsberg has already seen progress during Ryan's early bullpen sessions.
"His last bullpen last year wasn't as good as his first bullpen this year," Arnsberg said. "He worked his rear end off."
Toronto can only hope that means Ryan can once again be the force he was during the 2006 season. On Wednesday, the closer will make his first appearance of the spring when the Blue Jays host the Yankees in their Grapefruit League opener at Dunedin Stadium at 1:05 p.m. ET. It will also be Toronto's first look at Ryan in a game before he joins Team USA for the World Baseball Classic.
Beyond Ryan's health, which is less of concern now for the club, the Jays will be keeping a close eye on the left-hander's command of the strike zone. While Ryan pitched admirably last season, especially after returning less than a year removed from major reconstructive surgery he had on his left elbow in May 2007, he often struggled with control.
Arnsberg has been thrilled with what he's seen so far.
"I don't think that's a concern at all for him," Arnsberg said. "I think he's going to go out and do what he's been born and bred to do his whole life, and that's go out there and compete. ... It's not a concern of mine, and I don't think [it's a concern] of his. He's got one thing in mind, and that's to grab it and downhill it and try to pitch ahead in counts and start expanding the zone.
"I think that's going to be his main concern. If he ends up not commanding like he hopes to, well, then we'll deal with that down the road. But right now, going in, it's not a concern at all for any of us."
That being said, there was definitely a difference in Ryan's performance last season when compared to the '06 campaign, his first tour with Toronto under the five-year contract worth $47 million he signed.
In 2006, the 6-foot-6 closer racked up 38 saves and posted a 1.37 ERA, with a 0.86 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched), 86 strikeouts, 20 walks and a .169 opponents' batting average. Over 65 appearances, Ryan logged 72 1/3 innings, had a 4.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio and averaged 15.18 pitches per inning.
Last season, after returning in mid-April, Ryan posted 32 saves with a 2.95 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP, 58 strikeouts, 28 walks and a .216 opponents' batting average. In 60 outings, the lefty chalked up 58 innings, finishing with a 2.07 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an average of 18.67 pitches per inning.
While last season served as a valuable learning experience for Ryan, he admitted that there were times it took a toll on him mentally.
"You're mind is telling you one thing and then your body is kind of not doing what you want it to," Ryan said. "You know what you can do and you know what you're capable of, but it's tough. ... When you look back and you look at the numbers, at times, it was ugly, man. It was tough for me."
Ryan does take pride in the fact that he managed to finish with respectable numbers in a year he was coming back from the Tommy John procedure.
"It wasn't pretty at times," he said. "But you look back and you say, 'You know what? I did it.' Now I can get back to focusing on what I need to work with."
One issue last season was the absence of a consistently strong slider for Ryan, robbing him of his best weapon.
"That was the biggest thing for me last year," Ryan said. "That's why it was bad. Before, when I fell behind, I could always get back in the count with a slider. I could throw it for a strike and I could throw it for a strikeout pitch. Last year was just a year where I really didn't have a slider all year.
"It was tough. You're pitching out there when you're a two-pitch guy and you've got one-and-a-half. That's a tough lesson for anybody to learn."
Over the offseason, Ryan worked in conjunction with the Texas Metroplex Insitute for Sports Performance near his home in Arlington, checking in regularly with his physical therapist, John Guido. Ryan said this past winter was less about rehabilitation and more about preparing for the grueling season ahead.
That was a drastic change from two offseasons ago, when Ryan was working to just get back on a mound.
"I didn't have to come in there and bang out arm exercises every day," Ryan said. "We could actually spend some time talking and talking about things I could do over the course of the season that would keep me stronger -- how to back off and not try to do too much too fast, try to look at the big picture instead of worrying about getting back and getting healthy.
"Now I can worry about being strong the whole year."
Arnsberg said the reports from the medical staff at TMI were encouraging, and heading into this spring, the 33-year-old Ryan already looked better than he did a year ago.
"B.J. is stronger and better physically than he was last year," Arnsberg said. "And he was really good last year. So it kind of gives you an idea where he's at right now. He was able to taper his throwing down and have a little bit better of a plan coming in, where last year there were a lot of question marks for himself and in our own minds."
Ryan's improved physical condition is one reason Toronto isn't concerned about him taking part in the World Baseball Classic. Arnsberg said he's discussed Ryan's detailed pitching schedule with Team USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, who has agreed to comply with the throwing program the Jays have mapped out for the pitcher.
"They're very aware that we have a concern with that," Arnsberg said. "Hopefully, that will all be respected and they go win a championship."
Following his appearance in Wednesday's opener, Ryan is also scheduled to pitch on Saturday for the Blue Jays. On March 4, Ryan is slated to take the mound at Dunedin Stadium again, but he'll be in uniform for Team USA for its exhibition game against Toronto. Come March 7, Ryan and Team USA will be at Rogers Centre in Toronto for the first-round opener against Team Canada.
Arnsberg will be watching, but he won't be worrying.
"He's not going to be out there trying to throw it through a brick wall right now," Arnsberg said. "He understands this is a process of trying to get this thing ready to go, so I don't really have any concerns."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.