Ryan O’Rourke isn’t as talented as some of his 2012 teammates, nor is his future as bright as many of the hitters he faced in the Midwest League. The Minnesota Twins pitching prospect is realistic about his strengths and weaknesses, with no illusions of becoming the next Frank Viola. He does, however, intend to pitch in the big leagues.
A 13th-round pick in 2010 out of Merrimack College [Massachusetts], the 24-year-old southpaw transitioned to a bullpen role last year in low-A Beloit and high-A Fort Myers. Effective against left-handed hitters, he features multiple arm slots, a pair of sliders, and good control. In 227 minor-league innings he has walked just 2.3 batters per nine innings. His strikeout rate is an equally impressive 8.6.
O’Rourke talked about his path to the big leagues, as well as a pair of notable Beloit teammates — Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario — and what it is like to pitch to Oscar Taveras and Christian Yelich.
O’Rourke on his targeted role: “My pitches are more conducive to getting left-handers out, so my clearest path to the big leagues is going to be the LOOGY role. My lefty-lefty breaking balls — from what I hear and what my reports say — are pretty good. They’re definitely serviceable at high levels, so I want to focus on being more of a lefty specialist.
“The Twins are pretty adamant about putting me in that role and seeing if I can have the kind of success that warrants a call-up. They have a few lefties up there now, but not LOOGY types. Glen Perkins is more of a closer. He’s out there throwing 97, with the ball jumping out of his hand. Tyler Robertson can go multiple innings. My job would be to come in and get that one key lefty out.”
On his repertoire: “I throw both a two- and four-seamer. If I’m going arm side it’s usually a two, and if I’m going away it’s usually a four, because my four cuts a little bit. I’ve topped out at 94, but usually sit between 89 and 91. That about average for a major-league lefty, so I have enough of a fastball. I just need to work down with it consistently.
“I have two different sliders. I throw one to righties that is more like a cut slider. It’s about 83-84 and I try to throw it at their back foot. To lefties, I’ll throw more of a sweeper that starts on the inside part of the plate and moves to the outside. It’s anywhere from 78 to 81 and has a big break to it.
“I’ll throw a curve once in awhile, but mostly just for a strike when I’m behind in the count. It’s kind of a looper, as opposed to something sharp and devastating. It’s pitch I want to keep in the back of a hitter’s mind. If the count is 1-2 and I started him out with a curve, he’ll know I could always come back with it. But mostly I go with one of my sliders. Those are my out pitches.”
On his slider grips: “When you hold a curveball, you’re on the outside of the seam. What I do with my slider is keep the ball in the same position and put my fingers at a 45-degree angle, touching the other side of the seam. I’ll be on the left side of the ball with my fingers touching the right side of the seam. I create a lot of rotation — imagine a globe spinning — by putting a lot of pressure on my index finger and really pushing into the ball. I throw it like a fastball, and it spins out really fast. It has a late, sharp break, which is why I call it a cut slider.
“On the one with the bigger break, I’m on the smaller part of the horseshoe. I kind of flick my wrist to the side — sort of a 180 with my wrist — and that gives me a sweeping motion with it. That’s the one I’ll try to throw more over the top. What that does is create two planes of movement, even though it’s a big, sweeping slider.”
On his arm slots: “My arm slot is kind of all over the place, but my mechanics are decent enough that I can do that. I’ll drop my arm, or raise it up, depending on what I need to do with the ball. If I see a guy dropping his shoulder and swinging downhill, I’ll drop my arm to have the ball cut across the zone. If a guy is on my fastball, I might throw it more over the top to get some sinking action on it.
“I’m not throwing directly over the top like a Tim Lincecum, or dropping down to a Randy Johnson sidearm sling, but it’s enough of a difference to give a hitter a different look. If I throw a fastball over the top, and then a slider from low three-quarters, that’s a big enough difference to fool their eyes. I’m changing their eye levels.
“When I was a starter — and even a little last year — I’d sometimes drop down even more. Not knuckle-scraping, but pretty low. I’d throw a Frisbee slider and I had some success with it. I’ve worked a few into my bullpens this offseason, so it’s something I may use against certain hitters in certain counts.”
On facing Oscar Taveras: “The best hitter I’ve played against is Oscar Taveras, from the Cardinals. I faced him two years ago when he was in Quad City and I was still a starter. I think he went 7 for 9 against me, with two home runs. I actually threw one pitch that hit the ground — he scooped it off the dirt and hit for a double. Earlier in the same game he hit a three-run home run against me on a 1-2 slider that he didn’t have any business swinging at, never mind hitting over the fence.
“I think I was guilty of over-thinking against him. I probably wasn’t throwing Oscar enough fastballs. I’d start him off with one, but then wouldn’t go back to it. I was getting beat with breaking balls that were speeding up his bat. The next time I face him, I’ll probably go with more fastballs, because guys I’ve seen have success against him did that. It’s not that he can’t hit fastballs — he obviously can — but he didn’t seem as comfortable hitting them as he did sliders and curveballs.”
On facing Christian Yelich: “I’ve also played against Christian Yelich, who is in the Marlins organization. No matter where you throw it, he’s going to put the barrel on the ball. He has a very fluid and compact swing.
“I think I’ve only faced him once, and got him out, but what I saw him do against our other pitchers really impressed me. He’s just very sound. If the pitch is in, he’s going to pull it. If it’s away, he’s going to go with it. Some guys try to pull everything and end up rolling balls over, but he has the smarts and savvy to go with the pitch. He knows how to swing down on the ball and backspin it, and lift it over the shortstop’s head into the gap.”
On Miguel Sano: “Miguel is a sensational player for how young he is. His power is unbelievable, and not just the power that hits the ball out of the park. It’s also the ones he just misses. He’ll be out on his front foot and barrel a ball to the warning track. It looks like it will be a pop up to second, and the next thing you know he’s flying out to deep right-center.
“On pure instincts alone — his pure, natural ability — he’s off the charts. He was 18 years old when he first stepped onto a low-A field, and he tore it up for a month. He made people adjust to him. That speaks to his raw talent.
“Miguel got off to a really hot start last year and I think it was because teams didn’t really know him. They knew he was a big prospect, but not how to pitch him. He was getting fed a lot of fastballs and he was hitting them long distances. The second or third time around, teams began starting him off with breaking balls. Then, if they got a strike on him, he’d often chase pitches that were down.
“Toward the end of the year, he began to realize what pitchers were doing to him. He was really learning and developing. If he can continue to hold off on breaking balls, and wait for a fastball, he’s going to become a complete hitter and really make some noise.
“He has some work to do at third base, but he made strides there, too. He put in the effort, and our coaches worked with him a lot. He had been a shortstop his whole life, so he was used to having more time to see the ball. The one- and two-hoppers were different for him. Honestly, I think his arm is a little too strong at times. He’s got a rocket. He could probably throw 95 off the mound. He kind of takes his time and then lets it go, and a lot of times it will sail. That said, he’s 18 and getting better. He’s a world ahead of where guys are at his age.”
On Eddie Rosario: “He has the quickest hands I’ve ever seen. I remember one game we had a guy throwing 96 against us, and Rosario turned him around three times on inside pitches. He’s just very, very quick with the bat.
“For him, it’s pure instincts. He sees the ball and puts the barrel on it. He’s never going to have the same type of power as Sano, but I see him hitting above a .300 clip for years to come.
“It’s tough to tell if he’ll be better at second base or in the outfield. He has an arm. People say it’s average, or even a little below average, but I think he has a cannon from the outfield. At second base, that’s taken away from him a little bit. A lot of people are saying his best way to get to the major leagues is playing second base, but I think he can play both. We’ll have to trust the Twins on that decision. They understand what the best fit is for a player.”