In his second season with the Wichita Wingnuts, Ryan Kussmaul is proving to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the American Association, among the leaders in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. His transition from reliever to starter has been a seamless one, earning him a reputation as one of the most difficult pitchers in the league to face.
If you hang around baseball long enough, you will meet a lot of players who are students of the game. They spend a significant amount of their time learning how to read pitchers, observing the greats to see how they can take their own game to new levels, and figuring out how they can get every single advantage so that they can advance.
While observing and studying can be beneficial, it takes a special kind of player who can take the things that they learn and integrate it into their own game. Many make it to professional baseball on sure talent alone, however, it takes a very special kind of player to advance to the highest level of the game because being a great student is essential if you are going to be playing alongside the likes of Mike Stanton, Mike Trout, and Clayton Kershaw.
In Wichita, Ryan Kussmaul has proven to be such a player. A man who has played at some of the highest levels of the sport, primarily because he has studied the sport in the same manner that an engineer studies chemical principles or a doctor studies anatomy. That quest for knowledge is what is making Ryan one of the most dominate pitchers in the American Association and helping to make the Wichita Wingnuts the odds on favorites to win the league title.
It Was Just What You Did…At First
Early on, Ryan Kussmaul’s success in baseball was not about being a student at all. He played baseball because that is what all the other kids were doing, just as he played just about every other sport he could. This included wresting, which became the Kussmaul family sport.
“My first sport was wrestling. I come from a wrestling family. My brother is a wrestler. I got a niece who was a national champion. I got a nephew who was a state champion. I went to state in wrestling when I was younger but gave that up and decided to start playing basketball because I was good at that. I got tall.”
While exceling in wrestling, it was on the diamond that he was really dominating. He had so much success in baseball primarily because of his pure talent. He loved the success that he was having, especially in one particular area.
“I loved that I could go out and strike everybody out. Nobody could ever hit me as a kid. It kind of still seems to be like that.”
After graduating from Fennimore High School (WI) Ryan headed off for Madison College. He was drafted in 2006 by the Florida Marlins, but wanted to pursue his academic career first.
“Drafted in 06. Didn’t sign. I was a draft and follow. I was very big on education, so I continued with the school thing, having it paid through academic and athletic scholarship.”
Some may think it is crazy that Ryan Kussmaul did not pursue his opportunity to play professional baseball when he was first drafted, but it was the influence of his coach at Madison College that made him see that his education needed to be his priority.
“Mike Davenport was my college baseball coach. I learned so much going to Madison, just as far as development. He was big on education, too. He’s a health teacher at the college which was another thing that I just took from him. He made it clear that baseball can be important but to grow you needed to learn. I had always seen education as a priority but he helped to make it even more so. Because of him I grew up a lot my freshman year and sophomore year there and became a better adult.”
Ryan Kussmaul started at Madison College but would graduate from Mount Olive College. He had achieved his academic goals, graduating with degrees in sociology and criminal justice, but wanted to pursue his opportunities in baseball. Despite having a great deal of success in college, including going 5-2 with a 3.61 ERA his senior season, Ryan was not drafted again, leaving him looking for a place to continue his career.
Boldly Heading to a New Frontier
After graduating, Ryan Kussmaul joined Southern Illinois in the Frontier League. He appeared in nine-games there, including four starts, posting a 2.57 ERA and a 4-1 record. In 35-innings he allowed just 34 total runners while striking out 41.
The right-hander started the 2010 season at Southern Illinois, posting a 3-1 record in 9-appearances. He was just as impressive as he had been the prior season, posting a 2.68 ERA and allowing 47 total base runners in 50.1-innings pitched.
Good Guys Wear Black
Those are the kinds of numbers that are going to attract the attention of scouts and that is exactly what happened. Ryan Kussmaul was signed by the Chicago White Sox organization and was sent to Mid-A Kannapolis in 2010.
The right-hander spent a short time there, absolutely dominating in his 9-appearances. Ryan saved a game there and had a miniscule 1.20 ERA. He allowed just 8-base runners in 15-innings pitched while striking out 17. He moved up to High-A Winston-Salem where he would appear in 5-games, recording another save and striking out 9 in 8.2-innings pitched.
The following year, Ryan spent the entire season at Winston-Salem. He worked exclusively out of the bullpen, where he was 3-1 with 6-saves and a 2.51 ERA. While those numbers were impressive it was his 88-strikeouts in 57.1-innings that was absolutely eye popping. All while still only allowing just 54 total batters to reach.
He was pitching so well that the right-hander opted to head to Winter Ball, spending some time in the Puerto Rican Winter League as well as the Mexican Pacific Winter League. He combined to make 13-appearances, allowing 3-runs in 12.2-innings pitched, while striking out 20.
A Rising Career
In 2012, the White Sox moved Ryan Kussmaul to AA-Birmingham to start the season. He was having a monster season there, going 2-1 with 13-saves and a 1.40 ERA, and even moved to AAA-Birmingham for a short stint. He would appear in just one-game there, but it seemed that his trajectory was destined for the highest level of the game.
The right-hander returned to Birmingham the following season, where he had another outstanding year. In 23-appearances, Ryan was 2-1 with 5-saves and a 2.43 ERA. He continued to show incredible command, walking just 7 and allowing only 24-hits in 33.1 innings pitched, fanning 36.
In 2014, Ryan would start in Birmingham once again, but would spend a significant portion of the season in Charlotte. There, he put up solid numbers, posting a 3.81 ERA with five saves, while striking out 57 and 52-innings pitched.
A Surprising Turn of Events
Ryan Kussmaul had proven at every level that he had the kind of stuff to be successful no matter where he went, including in the Venezuelan Winter League where he had continued to pitch each off-season. He looked destined to becoming a Major League pitcher, especially when he was assigned to the Chicago White Sox club in spring training of 2015. However, before the team broke camp, he was released in one of the most surprising moves that a Major League organization has ever made.
Looking to stay in the game, Ryan went to Long Island in the Atlantic League, where he was 5-2 with 26-saves and a 3.42 ERA. The right-hander was out to prove that the White Sox organization had made a mistake, and he was clearly proving so.
He was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016, and went to AA-Mobile, where the team used him exclusively as a starter. He made just three appearances there before being released as injuries hampered his performance.
Ryan Kussmaul, Wichita Bound
Knowing he still had what it took to be successful, Ryan Kussmaul signed with the Wichita Wingnuts near the end of the 2016 American Association season. The right-hander was absolutely brilliant, making three starts and posting a 1.62 ERA in 16.2-innings pitched.
It seemed an absolute no-brainer for Ryan to come to Wichita. This wasn’t just about the fact that he knew he still had incredible stuff, even at 30-years-old. It was also about the fact that there was really only one manager he wanted to play for.
“I came here because of (Manager) Pete (Rose, Jr.). Pete was a manager with the White Sox and in Spring Training we would always talk and we would always hang out. He was always a big influence on me as far as my confidence factor. He always tells guys how it is. Some guys might give it up early in their careers, I was almost one of them. You start wondering, Is this for me? Is it time for me to move on, to start making a little bit more money? Pete is that guy who talks you into it. He’ll tell you that the longer you have a jersey on your back, you’ll always have a chance of getting that opportunity regardless of whether it’s in the big leagues.”
Loving the New Opportunity
While Ryan Kussmaul had been a starting pitcher at various stops in his career, this is how he has exclusively been used in Wichita. It’s something that he has really come to love, because his approach to the game has changed greatly. It has not only allowed him to hone his craft in a way that has made him enjoy the sport more, but has turned him into an even more profound student of the sport.
“As a reliever, I didn’t have to think too much. I would just go in there and blow the shoes off three guys. Here it is; see what you can do with it. Now, I love it because I’m in the dugout and I’m writing my own scouting report on these guys. I’ll sit in the dugout and I’ll write up my own scouting reports and watch some of our starters, like Kane or Cooper, and kind of judge his stuff off of my stuff and then see how the hitter approaches them in terms of how they take swings, how they approach the at-bat, are they aggressive, just watching how their feet move. Then, based off of how my stuff works, I’ll build a game plan that this is what I’m going to get this guy out with, and I’ll write that down and write my own scouting reports. Then I’ll study that the night before and I come out knowing that this is my plan with this guy, boom-boom-boom.”
Joining the starting rotation has also changed his mentality about how he views his success on the field. As a true lifetime learner, Ryan has approached each game as a kind of test, where he is having to earn a grade each time based upon his success on the mound.
“As a reliever, especially me being a late inning guy, it’s hard to stay locked in. The game’s going on, and the fifth, sixth comes around and you look and you think, ‘Oh, it might be a save situation. So, let’s get prepared.’ But with starting, I can actually go into it like it’s a homework assignment, or like a test. I am preparing like I’m going to ace this exam. If I get too wrong, which is like two runs, so be it, that’s still a B+. I’m still up there, I’m still doing well.”
There Is Much More to than Just the Academic Side
While studying how to get hitters out is a key part of the game, the truth is that baseball may be the most difficult sport mentally. It is true that it does not tax your physical abilities like one may see in football or hockey but, in a sport where failure is the norm, it takes a special kind of player to stay mentally tough enough to continue to succeed.
“You have to be so mentally strong to play this game. That’s why a lot of guys don’t make it. Some guys only make it two years and they’re done, because mentally they can’t take it,” Ryan Kussmaul explains. “They might think deep down, ‘Hey I’m doing everything right, but what’s going on. I’ve given up 10 hits?’ If I hit my spots and they’re just hitting it then that’s just how baseball goes. You just got to laugh it off and move on. You got to have a very, very, very short memory to play baseball. Whatever happened last week does not matter. Whatever happened yesterday does not matter. Whatever happened to minutes ago does not matter. If you don’t do that you are going to be beaten before you come to the field.”
Part of that mental toughness is learning from previous mistakes. Since there are so many opportunities to fail in baseball, there’s a lot of learning involved, and this means that any pitcher or hitter must take the lessons that they have learned and apply them to ensure that similar miscues don’t happen in the future.
Ryan had such a lesson early in the season when he faced the Salina Stockade for the first time. He took a loss in his first outing of the year, and used that as a lesson plan of sorts to ensure that his next grade against them would be an A.
“If they got my number the first time, they’ll never get me the second time around. For example, (Daniel) Aldrich got me for two homers, four RBI in the first time we faced him, but now I know that that’s where you like it, so you’re never going to get it there again. That’s what he’s looking for. So, being a starter, you know you’re going to face these teams over and over again. Instead of going out there and making the same mistakes I make the adjustment. I might’ve struck out three of you the first game, but now I struck out 14 of you because I know how all of you work and I know how to pitch you.”
His opening outing against Salina is such a great example of how the right-hander learns, adapts, and overcomes. After giving up 4-runs in 6-innings in his 2017 debut against the Stockade, Kussmaul has dominated them in his two starts since. That included allowing just one-run on 4-hits in a 6-inning start 10-days after giving up the two-home runs, and a 6-inning victory on June 21 where he struck out 14.
Mentality of a Little Leaguer
While this has been the career path for Ryan Kussmaul, what has really separated him from many is that he is enjoying playing every day. While he understands the seriousness of his performances, it is clear that he wouldn’t be playing the sport if he wasn’t enjoying every moment he headed to the mound. Every part of it – the preparation, studying, the endless time in the weight room – are all about having fun at what he’s doing.
“I play because I enjoy it. I’m good at it. It’s fun having that control out there. In guys’ careers, there’s always that one day where you just lose it. Where you just don’t have it anymore. I’m lucky enough that after nine years of playing pro ball I’m still doing it. It’s still working. I’m still having fun learning new things about myself and what works for me, how I get that guy out, how I prepare myself for day one, day two, whatever. It’s fun. This is what I’m going to do today.”
Ryan is enjoying playing baseball, primarily because he isn’t letting the sport become too overwhelming in his life. It’s a lesson that he learned from his mom, to remain fairly even keeled about anything you do.
“My ma is probably one of my biggest inspirations as far as being there for me my entire life. She’s not one of those helicopter moms, she’s just been in the background. Very humble. I would do well and she knew I would. She has always been someone who had confidence in my ability to do well at whatever I put my mind to. She just expected me to do well.”
Meeting Mom’s Expectations
After having such a brilliant professional baseball career, Ryan Kussmaul continues to meet the expectations of his mother, finding himself in the top 10 in several pitching categories in the American Association this season. After dropping his first two decisions of the year, Ryan heads into his start Saturday night as the winner of five straight games. He is currently sixth in the league in ERA (2.88), tied for seventh in wins (5), and fifth in strikeouts (72). He also has a run of five straight quality starts, and hasn’t been scored upon in his last 10 innings pitched.
Clearly, Ryan Kussmaul is not only living up to the expectations of his mother, but to that of his teammates, his manager, and the Wichita Wingnuts organization as a whole. He is passing every test he has faced this season, and will be going for his sixth straight A-performance on Saturday night. No doubt that if he continues to remain an “A” student that his last performance will be handing his team the prize as the league’s best class – the American Association Championship Trophy.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA