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‘A bolt out of the blue’: Royals starter Cole Ragans and the anatomy of a baseball lightning strike

The lefty's journey from the Rangers to the Royals — and from Triple-A to a 26-inning scoreless streak — is emblematic of baseball in 2023

Cole Ragans crashed into the consciousness of a lot of baseball fans from his belly. The 25-year-old Kansas City Royals starter was riding a 26-inning scoreless streak, but at that very moment Sunday afternoon, he had tripped, skidded down the mound and flung the ball out of the TV frame.

One of a series of wild pitches Cole Ragans threw on Sunday. (MLB.com)
One of a series of wild pitches Cole Ragans threw on Sunday. (MLB.com)

Before anyone had a chance to learn much more about Ragans, they watched his next two pitches go very, very awry, allowing the Toronto Blue Jays to notch their first run and then tie the game in an eventual victory as they jockeyed for position in the heated AL playoff race.

The three straight wild pitches blitzed the internet, evidence of the Royals’ ineptitude in what became their 100th loss of the season, of the dreaded yips, of wild conspiracies centered on gambling or Ragans seeking vengeance against his former team, the Texas Rangers.

A fourth ball to Alejandro Kirk, the somewhat superfluous batter, was less wayward but nonetheless ended Ragans’ day. Royals manager Matt Quatraro came to get him, and as Ragans walked off the mound, the Kansas City broadcasters struggled to process what they had just watched.

“That,” play-by-play man Ryan Lefebvre said, “was a bolt out of the blue.”

'Scoreless innings with lots of strikeouts'

Suddenness is a matter of perspective.

For bystanders, a speeding train rounds the bend and suddenly bursts into view. For the people on the train, sudden would mean screeching to a halt. Lefebvre and the Royals fans he was speaking to were already aboard the Cole Ragans train on Sunday.

Since joining Kansas City’s big-league team — somehow running MLB’s worst record despite the existence of the 2023 Oakland A’s — on July 15, Ragans has made nine starts, logging a 1.69 ERA across 53 1/3 innings and striking out more than a third of the hitters he has faced. He has been one of the top two pitchers in baseball by park-adjusted ERA- and FanGraphs WAR. It’s a run of dominance that’s pretty impossible to fluke your way into. By Sunday’s start, Ragans had morphed from trade flier to excellent young pitcher, and that wasn’t just a product of his playing for the otherwise gloomy Royals.

With the 6-foot-4 lefty through five clean innings and his scoreless streak at 26 innings on Sunday against the Blue Jays, Lefebvre and analyst Rex Hudler spent the start of the sixth talking about George Kirby, the stellar young Seattle Mariners pitcher who set off a flurry of discussion by saying he didn’t think he should’ve been sent out to pitch the seventh in a recent loss. The Royals, the announcers explained in commending Ragans for his consistent work, are instilling a mindset in their young pitchers to go deep into games. Working deep into games is, of course, less common in an era when pitchers pursue maximum velocity and movement with ever advancing levels of vigor and sophistication.

Ragans sits 96.5 mph with his fastball and occasionally touches triple digits — blazing speeds for a starter, especially a left-hander. But you could spot the first sign of trouble Sunday on a 2-2 pitch to Bo Bichette, as Ragans chucked a pitch in the dirt and dropped his gaze straight down to toe at an apparent disturbance with his landing spot on the mound.

On the next pitch, he whiffed Bichette on a diabolical, 94 mph cutter/slider thing.

Cole Ragans struck out Bo Bichette with this cutter/slider. (MLB.com)
Cole Ragans struck out Bo Bichette with this cutter/slider. (MLB.com)

It’s a pitch that would’ve made pitchers from even 25 years ago blush, and it’s a pitch that just about every major-leaguer today would sign up to throw. Combining slider levels of drop with fastball-type velocity is an overpowering weapon, one wielded by Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Corbin Burnes, Zack Wheeler and the like — you know, the best pitchers in baseball.

It’s the pitch that helped Ragans accelerate to a cruising speed of “scoreless innings with lots of strikeouts.”

But, approaching the 100-pitch rubicon, Ragans let a 99 mph fastball sail high and wide against Davis Schneider as he put a second man on base via walk one batter before he truly lost his footing.

“Very few of those,” Lefebvre intoned at the time. “For all that power, there have been very few pitches where you feel like he overthrew and made a noncompetitive pitch.”

'Cole Ragans for arguably the most dominant reliever of our generation?'

Lightning makes itself known by wearing down the atmosphere’s defenses. It is a buildup and then a breakthrough. It is pressure and release, charge and discharge.

Ragans entered last offseason in a sort of limbo. He had made his MLB debut for the also-ran Rangers and compiled a 4.95 ERA over nine starts. With big-name arms joining up for 2023, however, it appeared that Ragans would be destined for the Texas bullpen or Triple-A.

He spent the winter working with Tread Athletics, an external pitching lab characteristic of baseball’s information-driven age of relentless improvement. Tyler Zombro, the minor-league pitcher and Tread trainer who worked with Ragans, said the initial goals were a) maintain his health and b) build up his stuff, the currency in which major-league pitchers trade. At the time, Ragans’ arsenal centered on a 92 mph fastball and an advanced 82 mph changeup, with an 88 mph cutter mixed in. The models Tread uses to evaluate and shape pitches didn’t look favorably upon the pitch Ragans was using as a cutter-slash-slider. It needed to either drop more or go faster. So the first mission was to improve velocity — offspeed velocity.

Diligent and motivated, Ragans “hammered” the drills and exercises Tread suggested, Zombro said. A tall pitcher with a smooth delivery that, yes, resembles Cole Hamels’ windup, Ragans began making strides quickly. The cutter velocity spiked into the 91-92 mph range while maintaining its bite. That, Zombro said, portended serious potential for pure fastball velocity. And sure enough, by the time he arrived for spring training, Ragans was regularly throwing his four-seam 96 to 98 mph.

“The increase in velocity is not because he used to pitch at 70% perceived effort and now all of a sudden the tempo is drastically up or he's max effort,” Zombro said. “I mean, it really is a mechanical efficiency thing.”

A left-hander throwing that hard is an extreme rarity, especially among starters. Over the past three seasons, Shane McClanahan and Jesus Luzardo are the only lefty starters who have averaged fastball velocities over 96 mph. A few others — Blake Snell, Carlos Rodón and Framber Valdez among them — usually land in the 95 mph range. The hardest-throwing lefty starter season in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008) was James Paxton’s 2016, when he averaged 97.2 mph.

Ragans’ velocity boost made it into games with Texas this season, but not as a starter and not to great effect. The Rangers used him in long relief across 17 outings between Opening Day and June, and he struggled with walks and ran up a 5.92 ERA before being sent down to Triple-A Round Rock to stretch back out as a starter. But before he could return to the majors, the Rangers traded him to the Royals for the hardest-throwing left-handed pitcher of all time, Aroldis Chapman, a bullpen mainstay the team desperately needed to further its postseason push.

“I know a lot of their front office staff felt like he wasn't truly able to show who he was, slash what he could be there, because of the inconsistent usage out of the bullpen,” said Zombro, who was in Round Rock while Ragans was there. “But it's like, you know, at that point in time, you say, 'Cole Ragans for arguably the most dominant reliever of our generation?' You know, for a team that's going for it, it makes sense.”

This is baseball’s version of the air breaking down, letting the electricity escape. Teams such as the Royals — way out of the race, sifting through talent for 2024 and beyond — seek out sparks such as a left-hander with multiple pitches and a starter’s pedigree who is suddenly throwing 97 mph.

'At the end of the day, we know with increased stuff comes risk'

Being a baseball player in the 2020s — constantly scrutinized by multiple scouting services, always on video, frequently tracked by advanced camera systems — eliminates a lot of blind spots and fallibility of memory, the dark corners of our consciousness from which tidy legends spring.

It’s honestly hard to say what the reaction would be today if a minor-league pitcher struggling with a barking shoulder accidentally electrocuted himself while working on his car’s spark plugs, then pronounced himself pain-free and proceeded to become Roy Oswalt. Best guess: He has an MRI anyway and perhaps sees his level-hopping, breakout season in the minors shortened or wiped out. At the very least, we would know more about what was going on inside his body, what besides the jolt came between 23rd-round draft pick and three-time All-Star.

But even with the assistance of constant documentation and assessment, our brains are ill-equipped to modulate between states of mind. The destination of a long, hard road gets flattened into destiny. Try to return to that place of skepticism about Shohei Ohtani’s abilities to play two ways in the majors. Try to exist in that world where Jacob deGrom is second (or third or fourth) fiddle to Matt Harvey. Try to summon that reaction to a pitcher needing Tommy John surgery, back when it still felt like a career-threatening proposition.

Now summon a reaction to a pitcher needing his second Tommy John surgery. Right. There’s the fear, the uncertainty.

Ragans was with the Rangers when deGrom announced he needed a second surgery. He began his scoreless streak the day Ohtani exited due to the elbow injury that might require his second. That was less than a month ago, but Ragans wasn’t mentioned as a notable pitcher who has successfully returned from two surgeries — still in rapid transit from afterthought to notable.

A first-round pick in 2016, Ragans’ progression toward the majors was stalled by an initial elbow injury, and resulting surgery, in spring 2018. Just before he was set to take a mound again, he felt discomfort during a throwing program. He had his second Tommy John in May 2019. Add the pandemic season, and there’s a gap on his stat pages from 2017 to 2021, a gap that now gets mixed into the montage, weaved into the backstory, but that could’ve been the end of the story.

“You look at it from the big-league lens, and it makes sense, right? I'm pretty sure you can pay anybody in America $800,000 a year to rehab,” Zombro said. “Looking at that from the minor-league side, where you're not making any money, you're stuck in Surprise, Arizona, in his case — that requires a lot of motivation, dedication.”

On the other side of those trials, Ragans largely returned to form with his fastball and his polished changeup, but he was older, and the game was new. Teams are finding success with pitchers whose headlining pitches work in the bullpen or the rotation, often honing them in relief before thrusting them onto the starter’s stage. Fastball-changeup is not a bullpen repertoire, but Ragans needed that breaking ball to reassert himself as more than a fifth starter or swingman.

Between his fastball velocity and the specs on his cutter and slider, Ragans now has more than just the surgeries in common with deGrom, Ohtani and McClanahan, the Tampa Bay Rays’ ace now recovering from a second Tommy John. He is an example of a pitcher who recovered, yes, but also an example of why pitchers don’t scale back to preserve their arms and pitch deeper into games, why they push themselves to their limits in search of the spectacular.

“When you look at it from the health-slash-performance side of things,” Zombro said, “I think every major-league baseball player you would ever talk to is going to tell you that they inherently know that throwing harder with better stuff — specifically, being better in supination for better breaking balls at better velos — they're gonna run that risk.”

If still sitting at 92 mph and throwing a cutter/slider under 88 mph, Ragans is probably in Round Rock or in the bullpen — or somewhere else outside the frame.

“Obviously, you're going to try to put yourself in the absolute best positions possible to be as healthy as you can possibly be,” Zombro said. “But at the end of the day, we know with increased stuff comes risk. And I think that's something everybody runs with.”

'The little things that add up to the big things'

So, about those three wild pitches.

First thought: Is Ragans hurt? Retrospect: He says he’s fine. (He and Quatraro, the Royals manager, reiterated after the game that he simply caught his cleat on the dirt and lost the feel for his landing spot.)

Cole Ragans asserted after his outing Sunday that he is just fine. (MLB.com)
Cole Ragans asserted after his outing Sunday that he is just fine. (MLB.com)

Second thought: The swing in the game’s outcome allowed the Blue Jays to gain another win in a very close battle with the Rangers, Ragans’ free-falling former team. Retrospect: The Rangers pummeled the Blue Jays in a series this week, claiming a new grip on their postseason fortunes, but they also lost Max Scherzer to injury, leaving their rotation with serious questions.

Third thought: A little, nervous voice asks if that was the end of Ragans’ excellence, if old control issues and inconsistency sprang up and pulled him down. Retrospect: We don’t know. Ragans is slated to start again Saturday, but if there’s anything to learn from his journey, it’s that we can’t see the whole story, for better or worse. Maybe the three wild pitches are the landmark moment of that inning, or maybe it’s the 94 mph dart that got Bichette. Someday, that will probably seem obvious.

“In Cole's case, he's, again, such a hard worker, where he's staying on top of every little detail,” Zombro said, betting on Ragans’ future. “I think as you get older and have more experience, you really start to appreciate the little things that add up to the big things.”

There’s next to nothing that comes out of the blue. There is a big world, with a lot of things to look at, within which thousands of motivated people are trying to break through, trying to flash brightly enough to make you forget the doubts and darkness that were there just a second ago.