Ball State Head Coach Rich Maloney has been involved in the game for a long time. A four-time MAC and two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, Maloney has had the opportunity to play a direct role in the development of several talented young men that have gone on to enjoy success at the next level.
In his 28 years as a head coach at the collegiate level, however, Maloney has never seen anything like he witnessed last weekend.
Redshirt sophomore righthander Ryan Brown made a pair of relief appearances for the Cardinals at the Swig & Swine College Classic in Charleston, South Carolina. He struck out 17 of the 20 batters he faced spanning 6 1/3 innings over two appearances, picking up the win in both contests. The only blemish on his pitching line was a lone walk allowed.
“That performance was the best I’ve ever seen, ever,” Maloney said. “I had tears in my eyes in the huddle. I got choked up because I said, ‘guys, this dude put our team right on his back.’ This is pretty special and he’s earned it.”
In Ball State’s second game of the tournament, a 5-4 win over Rutgers, Brown entered the game in the top of the eighth with the score tied 4-4 and retired the side in order, all three on swinging strikeouts. After Ball State took a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the inning, Brown returned to the mound in the ninth and induced a foul out, issued a walk and struck out the final two batters of the game, both swinging, while picking up his second win of the season.
Brown’s second appearance of the weekend came one day later on Sunday, going 4 1/3 against Canisius in a 6-1 win. He took the mound in the top of the fifth with two outs and a runner on second. He promptly recorded the third out of the inning and ended up striking out 11 batters in a row. The 12th batter he faced hit a weak ground ball out, but the 13th and final batter he faced struck out swinging, giving him 12 punchouts on the day in another win for both Ball State and Brown.
For context, Maloney has coached numerous high-profile arms at Ball State. Look no further than Bryan Bullington, the No. 1 overall pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates from the 2022 MLB Draft.
In more recent years some of the more notable pitchers, and draft picks, have been Zach Plesac, Drey Jameson, Kyle Nicolas, Chayce McDermott and Tyler Schweitzer, the Chicago White Sox fifth-round pick last July. Bullington played five years in the big leagues with Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toronto and Kansas City. Plesac has been a starting pitcher for Cleveland the past four years, Jameson made his big league debut with Arizona last September and both Nicolas and McDermott finished the 2022 season at the Double A level.
Brown appears to be next in line, ready to follow his fellow Ball State hurlers at the professional level, and what truly makes him so unique is his signature pitch, a Vulcan changeup.
Photo credit: Ball State Athletics
Many of the greatest closers in the history of Major League Baseball have possessed a pitch that defined their greatness. Growing up I distinctly remember Bruce Sutter’s splitter. More recently Trevor Hoffman’s changeup and Mariano Rivera’s cutter were readily synonymous between the pitch and the person that threw them, pitches that every single person knew were coming but were still so good hitters never had a chance more often than not.
“I learned it my freshman year, just basically messing around outside of our dorms with my roommate, Ty Johnson,” Brown said of the pitch’s origin. “I didn’t have a changeup coming into college because I was a catcher my whole life. My freshman year was my first year really pitching, so I had to learn a changeup. I started playing around with some [grips] and was very comfortable throwing that split-change, the Vulcan change. I started throwing it in games and I started getting a lot of swing-and-miss on it, so it kind of just evolved from there.
“So, basically the only thing I’m really thinking about it is I’m throwing it like a fastball – I don’t think it’s the movement that makes it good, I think it’s more of the deception of how it looks out of my hand. It’s definitely been my bread and butter for a couple of years now.”
The Vulcan changeup differs from a split-fingered change in that the ball is placed in between the middle and ring fingers as opposed to the index and middle fingers (imagine Stark Trek’s Spock addressing you with his standard Live Long And Prosper greeting, only with a baseball stuck in the middle of his Vulcan fingers). It differs from a split-fingered fastball in that it is thrown like a changeup, allowing the grip, as opposed to any pronation, to work its magic as the pitch disappears downward as it crosses the dish.
“That’s kind of my rule of thumb, I don’t like to manipulate pitches too much,” Brown added. “I like to use the way I naturally throw and try to make the most out of that. According to my grip the pitch moves how it’s going to move, so I don’t really think about releasing the ball a certain way.”
In addition to this outlier offering Brown also throws hard, usually sitting in the 92-94 range with his fastball, touching 95 frequently with a 96 appearing from time to time. Those velos are expected to climb as the weather warms up and as Brown continues to add strength to his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame. He’s also working on a slider, a pitch he’s able to dump in to a steal a strike, but at this point in time he hasn’t needed it much given the success of his Vulcan change.
The swing-and-miss metrics are ridiculous, something scouts have taken note of in previous viewings with their interest intensifying through two weekends of play.
Brown’s first appearance of the season came in Ball State’s very first game on the road against Charlotte. Similar to his more recent appearances Brown entered the game in the fourth inning and went the rest of the way. While he did strike out 10 batters he also walked nine, allowing just one hit without giving up a run and picking up his first win of the season.
“Honestly last weekend was equally impressive in a different way,” Maloney said of Brown’s first appearance. “Last weekend when we opened the season we faced a good Charlotte team and I brought him into the game and the margin was basically zero to make a mistake. His line was nine walks and 10 strikeouts, and he got the win. Who does that? A lot of people would say, ‘ugh, he walked nine guys.’ I would say, ‘that showed some moxie.’ That dude had to make big pitch after big pitch to get himself out of his jams, and he did it. A lot of guys would have broke.”
Brown admits he’s not overly mechanical when it comes to pitching. That doesn’t mean he just wildly fires from the mound, but he takes more of a naturalist approach, letting his body and its motion throw the ball he feels most comfortable with. He redshirted his entire first year on campus, arriving to Ball State as a catcher in high school as a native of Harrison Township, Mich., that would take the mound late in games to close things out. At the time he was just hurling fastballs, but his size and arm strength started to draw the attention of college recruiters.
A year ago as a redshirt freshman Brown was named the MAC Freshman of the Year after going 4-1 with a 1.71 ERA in 13 relief appearances. In 31 2/3 innings he struck out 50 batters and only allowed 17 hits, but he did issue 25 walks. The walks are largely contributed to his fastball command. Brown has a remarkable ability to command his Vulcan change but his ability to place his fastball has been inconsistent to this point of his pitching career, which essentially is a two-year work in progress.
“There’s a mechanical tweak I did make,” Brown said of the difference between the first weekend of play and the second. “I don’t really focus on mechanics too much most of the time, it’s more mental, but I made a switch the past week of just keeping my head still and trying not to get out of my mechanics. I’m throwing everything with intent, controlled intent. That mixed with not being afraid to pound the zone, to let my stuff play up, a mix of those two things were what helped.
“Confidence is a big thing for me. Every time I pitch – regardless if it’s the last outing at Charlotte where I had nine walks – I don’t think about that the next outing. I pitch with the same confidence and I use the mental skills I’ve learned to just flush it, move on to the next outing and keep going. I’m not focused on any of the failures of old outings.”
An Exercise Science major at Ball State, Brown has learned a great deal about his body during his studies. Upon graduation he would like to pursue physical therapy, a potential career that could be put on pause considering how much interest he’s going to draw between now and this year’s draft in mid-July.
For now Maloney intends to keep Brown in the bullpen, using him as an effective, somewhat old-school stopper reminiscent of closers of old. Ball State is supposed to get their closer from last year back at some point in time this spring, as Sam Klein has been unavailable to pitch to open the 2023 season after recording 11 saves a year ago. Should Brown get the call to start he has proven in extended relief appearances that he can certainly handle the added innings, and as his slider continues to develop he also has the requisite three pitches to start.
It’s also believed amongst scouts that Brown could be recording outs in the big leagues right now in the exact same role he’s currently being used given the swing-and-miss metrics his Vulcan change elicits.
Those possibilities aren’t in Brown’s mind at this point in time. He is focused on what he can control and that includes helping to guide Ball State to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 despite winning the MAC regular season championship a year ago.
“Our goal is to win the MAC again and get to a regional,” Brown said. “We’ve been in quite a drought, we haven’t been in a regional since ’06, so everyone’s hungry to get to a regional. I think we could really do some damage because we have a lot of returners that came back, upperclassmen in the mix with a lot of JUCO guys and freshmen that are going to make a big impact.
“Last year I know the guys we had on the team, the veterans – the quality of pitching and hitting that we had – we all knew that it was unfortunate that we couldn’t close out the [MAC] Tournament because I think that team would have been really special if we had made a regional. It just makes us hungrier this year.”
D1Baseball.com is your online home for college baseball scores, schedules, standings, statistics, analysis, features, podcasts and prospect coverage.