On Tuesday, the world got to see a glimpse of the Yankees minor leaguer Stephen Ridings when he relieved Luis Gil in the Bombers’ victory. Given his unsung background, he certainly isn’t a household name, but his performance that day raised hundreds of eyebrows. Where did this guy come from?
The 25-year-old righty started his night with three straight balls, but after that, threw nothing but strikes. He ended up fanning three hitters and worked around a Maikel Franco double. Ridings flashed some impressive stuff, highlighted by a triple-digits fastball with arm-side run and a slider with sudden, late break.
Ridings didn’t exactly come from a baseball powerhouse, as he attended Division III Haverford College and majored in chemistry. In fact, Baseball Reference says he’s the first Major Leaguer in 110 years from the small school in eastern Pennsylvania. According to the Yankees’ Director of Player Health and Performance Eric Cressey, Ridings is also a substitute chemistry teacher in a Florida school.
Or should we say was? Ridings has a long way to go before the Yankees can trust him, but if he pitches like he did on Tuesday, doors will slowly open for him.
An eighth-round Chicago Cubs draftee in 2016, Ridings is also a Tommy John survivor. He underwent the procedure before throwing a professional pitch, and made his debut in Rookie ball in 2017. That year, he threw 22 innings, and while he had a decent 4.09 ERA, it was evident he didn’t fully recover his command post-Tommy John (8.2 BB/9).
After another year in the Cubs’ system, the Kansas City Royals acquired Ridings in a minor trade during the spring of 2019, and used him as a starter that year with mixed results: 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings, but a 5.91 ERA and 4.6 walks per nine.
There wasn’t a minor league season in 2020, so Ridings didn’t pitch last year. To make a living, he had the aforementioned gig as a substitute teacher and sold sports equipment on the side. He also worked with Cressey in Florida for months, which paved the way for him to sign with the Yankees in January after he was released by the Royals.
Somerset Patriots beat writer Mike Ashmore wrote a superb article detailing how Ridings came to the Yankees, and it’s clear the team has Cressey to thank. His facility hosts a pro day for free agents every year, but before it went through, he had already sent video of Ridings to the Yankees front office.
At that time, Ridings’ velo was in the mid-90s. However, according to the pitcher himself, he added 10 pounds of muscle and fat, and got it to the 97-100 mph range, where it currently sits. He showed his improved velo in front of the Yankees’ scout who traveled to see him after watching the video Cressey had sent.
“After Kansas City released me, I didn’t know what was going to happen this spring,” Ridings told Ashmore. “The Yankees came and saw me, and I had that big velo jump, I had a good feeling that as long as I could throw strikes, command the ball well and throw a couple offspeed pitches that I thought I was going to put myself in a good spot for success. Clearly, they liked what they saw to put me here, and I haven’t looked back since.”
With the Yankees, Ridings went back to the bullpen, and he really took off. In 19 innings at Double-A, he had a 0.47 ERA and struck out 30 batters (14.2 K/9) and walking just a pair. After a July promotion, Triple-A batters fared a little better against Ridings, but not by much. Through 10 innings prior to his recent call-up, Ridings fanned 12 batters with a 2.70 ERA and again, just two walks allowed.
Ridings’ command has noticeably improved, and there is a good chance it was in large part because of the velocity spike he experienced. As previously stated, his fastball velo when he was traded to the Royals was in the low-90s range. It’s understandable that a pitcher with fringy stuff nibbles around the zone more often, thus increasing his walk rate.
But if you are confident in your stuff, you attack the zone more often, and your walks tend to decrease. By the time Ridings was assigned to Double-A with the Yankees, his stuff was incredibly good. That certainly helps.
It’s unclear what the Yankees’ plans for Ridings are this season. The bullpen is deep and, when everybody is healthy, good. However, he has shown this season that Double-A hitters are no match for his stuff, and Triple-A ones apparently aren’t, either. Granted, 10 innings of sample is certainly not much, but they have been very impressive, as was his explosion onto the scene on Tuesday.
Ridings has the potential to contribute to the Yankees’ 2021 playoff push, and could represent another high-octane weapon to solve the late innings. At the very least, he earned another shot. Considering what Ridings has done with his fresh chances in 2021, he’ll undoubtedly be thrilled at the new opportunity.