Two years ago, Ryan Atkinson wasn’t pitching. He was a patient services manager at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, moving on with post-mound life. Nineteen months later, the right-hander is trying to pull off an improbably fast rocket ride to the Major Leagues. As a non-roster invitee to Major League Spring Training, he has a shot to make the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2018 Opening Day roster.
Go back to the 2015 MLB Draft. 632 pitchers and 579 position players were selected, but of those 1,211 picks, only 11 have already made their Major League debuts. Baseball fans know some of those names: Andrew Benintendi, Alex Bregman, Paul de Jong, Dansby Swanson, and Ian Happ all came from the 2015 draft. There’s even a former General, 2016 Jackson hurler Andrew Moore, in that elite eleven. To ascend quickly, you have to be special, and people usually know it. Those six were chosen in the top four rounds.
Ryan Atkinson, a 2015 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, was not among the 1,211 draftees in 2015. Nor was he one of the 1,214 draft choices in June 2016 (634 of whom were pitchers). He hadn’t thrown a baseball in the twelve months prior to the 2016 draft.
Atkinson signed with Arizona–undrafted in eighty rounds over two years–in 2016. He ranked 13th in Minor League Baseball in strikeouts in 2017.
How does that happen?
To appreciate Atkinson’s remarkable journey, consider first his senior year statistics in college. He threw the most innings of any Bearcats pitcher, though his 4.82 ERA wasn’t special. He gave up 29 extra-base hits (10 homers), struck out 52, and walked 45.
The final outing of Ryan Atkinson’s college career came at the 2015 American Athletic Conference tournament in Clearwater, Florida. In his first and only post-season appearance, Atkinson lasted just one third of an inning. He allowed five runs (four earned) in the top of the first, including one that scored on his own error. This was his final collegiate pitch:
The two-run homer put Memphis up 5-0. Cincinnati fell 14-9, ending a 15-41 season.
Imagine that being the last pitch you ever threw.
Even without the painful ending, Atkinson’s season-long numbers were not the sort to put a player on a Major League team’s draft radar. Baseball was done with him for the moment, and he with it. For some alums of the college diamond, that might’ve meant beer league summer games and a slow regression to the common man’s physical mean. Atkinson isn’t common, though.
As a former dietetics student, being healthy simply made sense for Atkinson. Outside the brisk pace of hospital work, Atkinson kept his six-foot-three, 218-pound frame busy as a part-time personal trainer. He credits his health-conscious approach for giving him an edge. In June 2016, an old urge started eating away at him.
From Adam Baum of The Cincinnati Enquirer:
After working for nearly a year, it was the 2016 MLB Draft that spawned Atkinson’s return to the diamond.
“I just saw some people that I knew got drafted and got chances with major league clubs,” he said. “I knew in my head I was just as good if not better than them so I just decided to go try again.
Pause. Reflect on the idea that Atkinson, having just seen a fraction of 2016 draft, was confident that he could play with or above some of those drafted in a professional capacity. He held this belief despite not having thrown a strike for twelve months.
Play. More from Baum’s piece:
“I got in contact with one of the independent Frontier League managers … seeing if there were any tryouts. They sent my e-mail out to all the managers and I got an invite the next day to a tryout.”
That invite arrived on June 15, Atkinson said, and the tryout was five days later on June 20.
“I have five days to prepare; it was the first time I’d picked up a ball since last college season,” said Atkinson. “So I started throwing, the Diamondbacks initially saw me there.
“Honestly I wasn’t too nervous, I was pretty confident with it actually. I felt I didn’t really miss a beat.”
Atkinson was right. He earned a spot with an independent team after the tryout, pitched for them twice, and then the D-backs offered him a contract.
The early returns for the D-backs vetted Atkinson’s signing. Over the next two months, he put up a 3.24 ERA in 33.1 innings of rookie ball. The starter’s standout stat was a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (39 K, 13 BB), massively improved from his last year at Cincinnati.
“Fastball command, definitely,” Atkinson said. “Being under control with my body and knowing my body and how to use it, and then creating more deception to the hitters. And just learning from players around me—looking at guys who have had success already and picking their brains. You kind of just take a little piece of everything.”
Asked how his year away from the game affected the process, Atkinson treated it as nonchalantly as a trip to the grocery store.
“It was definitely helpful for me personally, I believe,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that was a time to recap on things. I was just moving on with life, and baseball just happened to come about. I wouldn’t say it was difficult to get back in. But don’t get me wrong: There was times where I had to sit there and think about what I was really doing and how to get better, and how to learn.” The doing bears the slightest trace of a Rust Belt accent, worn down from two syllables closer to one. It’s efficient.
Atkinson’s appetizing 2016 season pushed the Diamondbacks to order seconds, and the right-hander continued to cook. Starting 2017 at Low-A Kane County, Atkinson advanced to High-A Visalia after just four starts. He stayed in the hitter-friendly California League for the next month and a half, working to a 3.33 ERA with 66 Ks in 48.2 innings. In a strange turn, he was sent back down to Kane County for the next month, but he did not stoop to his opponents’ level. After his fourth straight performance with nine or more strikeouts, Atkinson ranked No. 2 in all of Minor League Baseball with 134 Ks in 105.1 innings. Suddenly, he was Double-A bound.
“I wouldn’t say that was my focus of you know, striking out [guys],” Atkinson said. “That’s not my number one thing. It just started to happen, and what I was doing was working, so I just stuck with it.”
In his seven starts at Double A, Atkinson worked five or more innings six times. His year-long total of 141.2 innings was second among D-backs prospects, trailing only the work of 2017 Generals ace Taylor Clarke (145.0). With 167 strikeouts, Atkinson topped all D-backs minor leaguers, besting 2017 MiLB.com Starting Pitcher of the Year Jon Duplantier by two.
“I feel like everybody helped along the way, including the staff, teammates, and friends in other organizations, speaking with them over time, chit-chatting about stuff,” Atkinson said of his success. “Obviously, Dan Carlson, our pitching coordinator: He’s been very helpful and lenient with me, which I’m grateful for. They stuck with me and kind of trusted me to get better, worked with me to get better. It’s just been a gather of things through the whole year.”
Atkinson’s full-season success earned him yet another test. One of just three D-backs pitching prospects invited to play in the prestigious Arizona Fall League, Atkinson held his own, firing 23 strikeouts in 21.0 innings. He relished the experience.
“Obviously, the best talent I’ve faced overall, from top to bottom, every time I competed,” he said. “Which is great, because that’s only going to make me a better player, because I’m going to learn from that. I kind of feel like as I continue to grow in levels and get those opportunities in advancement, I become a better player and person because I am facing better talent and I am learning and improving based on who I’m facing. It will make you become a better player, or you’re going to get the can almost, you know?”
Atkinson is not protected from “the can” as some high-round draft picks are, and he knows it. His walk numbers did increase at Double-A and in the Fall League. He didn’t dominate hitters his own age quite the way he had done against younger players. He still has room to improve.
But Atkinson’s inborn thirst for knowledge? That may be what ultimately sustains his bid. On road trips, the sandy-haired hurler will sometimes fold up in a hotel lobby armchair, reading a non-fiction book with pen in hand. He repeated some variant of the word learn ten times in our twenty-minute phone conversation, and he says it with a professor’s sense of respect. Every moment is teachable for him.
“I mean, everywhere I went, it’s just trying to pick something apart from somebody that I can use to my advantage,” he said. “I look at other people’s mistakes and what goes wrong, and I make sure those things don’t happen to me.”
One thing is clear: he’s done a lot of learning between that night in Clearwater and now.
Atkinson’s next chapter is unprinted, though the setting is known: Major League Spring Training at Arizona’s Salt River Fields complex in Scottsdale. February. Big league talent. Limited opportunities, and the disappearance of a piece of the anonymity he enjoyed in 2017.
Will he win out-race the thousands who once had a step on him? We’ll soon learn.
Generals fans can follow Atkinson’s journey on Twitter: @OldSport_34.
*Even Atkinson’s downtime isn’t truly unscripted. When he’s not honing his skills on the hill, he’s manning a part-time offseason job, reading, or doing something active. “Working out was my thing to get away and relieve tension, but reading now is helpful,” he said. “I’m becoming more of a reader, trying to read every day. I enjoy golfing, but it’s seasonal for me at times. I’m pretty low key, don’t do too much.” Atkinson’s current book is “School of Greatness,” by Lewis Howes, but he’s keen on podcasts as well, favoring the no-nonsense styles of Ed Mylett (#MaxOut, The Ed Mylett Show) and Andy Frisella (The MFCEO Project).
*Atkinson roomed with Ian Happ at Cincinnati, and the two still occasionally exchange texts. “Obviously he’s busy, has things to do, as I do,” Atkinson says of the Chicago Cubs outfielder, who just finished his first full MLB season. “But I try to shoot him a text every so often just to stop in and say what’s up. Playing with him at UC was great. He’s a great kid, great head on his shoulders. He’s all about his business, and obviously knows what he’s doing with the bat.” Happ’s 24 home runs ranked fifth among MLB rookies in 2017, but Atkinson is excited by the possibility of facing his former teammate as National League opponents. “In college, we faced each other often,” Atkinson said. “We never talk about it, but from what I can remember, I think I had the upper hand on him at the time. I would definitely love to get back to it and face him again. That’d be great.”
*With brief research, I could find only one decent comparison to Atkinson, who is trying to leap from undrafted signee to an MLB roster in under two calendar years. Current Baltimore Orioles reliever Darren O’Day went undrafted out of the University of Florida in 2006, though he was promptly signed by the Angels. O’Day threw 91.0 minor league innings (none above Double-A) over the course of that summer and the next one, pitching to a 2.57 ERA. That got him invited to the AFL, where he put up a 2.38 ERA and earned a non-roster invitation to MLB Spring Training. O’Day kept it up in the spring, made the roster, and debuted on Opening Day with a scoreless frame against Minnesota. O’Day will begin his eleventh MLB season this spring, sporting a 2.52 career ERA and an All-Star nod in 2015. In addition to O’Day’s role as a reliever, he differs from Atkinson in another major way: his sidearm motion, which has held opposing hitters to a .207 career batting average.