Getting to the big leagues can be a long road. When Ryan McNeil was drafted by the Cubs in the third round in 2012, however, his road appeared relatively short. As a high school pitcher, he had a mid-90’s fastball on which to build his career. In Rookie League at Arizona, things went very well as he appeared in eight games (six starts) with a 1.35 ERA. In just 20 innings, he struck out 18. It was a very promising start.
When drafted, McNeil was highly thought of by scouts and bloggers alike. Cubs Den said this when the pitcher was selected:
O’Neill is an athletic big-framed pitcher with good velocity (90-93 mph), but needs a lot of work in terms of mechanics and his breaking stuff. He definitely puts the “project” in projectability. Development will be the key here as all the parts are there, he just can’t get them all to work at the same time consistently.
Then 2013 came and McNeil’s career took a different path. He blew out his elbow in spring training and the resultant Tommy John Surgery forced him to miss all of 2013. McNeil was back in 2014, but had innings limits and pitch counts at Boise. He only threw threw 16 innings in eight appearances, all in relief, and had an 8.44 ERA as his velocity was down in the mid-to-upper 80’s. That year was all about just getting some work in.
Heading into 2015 at low-A South Bend, McNeil described to the Elkhart Truth’s Steve Krah the difficulties he still faced after the surgery:
Coming back from surgery, it’s really tough getting a feel back for my secondary pitches. Last year, I struggled a lot with command of my slider and change up. But this year, they’re both coming around. Any pitch, any count, I’m confident.
While 2015 would be a breakthrough year for McNeil, it did not start out that way. By the end of May, his ERA was creeping over 4 and heading up to 5. Then things changed as he regained arm strength over the course of the next three months. The velocity slowly increased on his fastball, first to 90, then 91, 92, eventually topping out at 93. His ERA for the summer months decreased in turn: 2.40, 0.79, and 2.65. His control still needed some work as he walked 24 and had a WHIP of 1.38, but McNeil finished the season with a 2.80 ERA and 57 K’s in 61 innings.
McNeil was promoted to Myrtle Beach to begin the 2016, where his role would be that of a setup man for Dave Berg and James Farris. Once again, he got off to a rough start in April with a 4.73 ERA. Things turned around in May, when closer Dave Berg was promoted to AA Tennessee and McNeil was called on to do more. He posted a 2.00 ERA in nine May appearances, striking out 11 in 9 innings and posting 2 saves.
In June, teammates Jose Rosario and James Farris, both closers for Myrtle Beach, joined Berg in Tennessee. That meant McNeil was being asked to close games out for the Pelicans, a role to which he has responded extremely well. To date in June, McNeil has yet to allow a run and has converted 3 saves in 4 appearances. The most amazing stat is the hitters are only batting .083 against him in the closer role as opposed to .235 as a setup man.
When I watch McNeil, it is all about the fastball. He’s been pumping it up to the plate between 91-94 this year, but usually he sits 91-92. When I saw him pitch last year for South Bend, I was amazed at the life he had on the pitch in the last 20 feet.
McNeil has set himself to have an outstanding season as the second half approaches. With the closer’s role in hand, and confidence that he can do the job, he could be a key to the Pelicans getting a playoff spot for the Mills Cup Championship Series.