One of the pleasant surprises in the Mets system in 2009 has been the work of AA RHP Ryan Coultas, who leads the B-Mets in IP (64.2) and in ERA (2.78) among pitchers who have called Binghamton home since Opening Day. It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Coultas, who the Mets drafted as a shortstop out of UC Davis in the 6th round in 2004. However, the 2002 DII Player of the Year hit just .243/.286/.339 over four seasons as a SS.
Then, on May 11, 2007, fortune smiled on Coultas in a Florida State League game. Bobby Parnell started for St. Lucie in Tampa, against the Yankees, but lasted just three innings. After four more relievers had come and gone, the game was tied 7-7 in the 11th, and the Mets were out of available pitchers. Coultas told his skipper that as he put it, he’d “briefly thrown in college and could possibly be an emergency guy.” Of his first professional pitching performance, Coultas recalls, “It was two innings. I think I walked the first guy, which was the last thing I wanted to do. …. We ended up coming back and winning the game. I actually led off the top of the 13th – and I singled. I remember Jose Castro doubled me home and I ended up scoring the go-ahead run and then went back out and closed it out in the bottom of the inning. It was a fun day.”
He made a strong enough impression, that after the 2007 season, Coultas abandoned shortstop to turn to pitching full-time. “It was really a much smoother transition than I would have expected it to be,” says Coultas who got right to work in the offseason, “I just talked with Rick Waits, and he emailed me the throwing program and Nitro, our strength guy, got in touch with me as far as the strength training program, [including] shoulder strengthening stuff.” That offseason work prepared him well for spring training 2008, when Coultas says, “I came into spring in pretty good shape and I was able to compete and try to make a team versus going into spring as a total project.” The then 26-year old made the St. Lucie Mets out of spring training where he was 1-5 with a 4.17 ERA and led the Mets in appearances (47) and bullpen innings (69). Impressively, Coultas struck out nearly a batter an inning (61) for a K/9 of 8.0 and posted a K/BB ratio of 2.17 (61/28).
Coultas was very happy to become a moundsman: “The whole thing rejuvenated my confidence and my enjoyment for the game. It just felt like it fit right away. I had some early success with it, so that helped too…. It’s been so much fun.”
The Mets challenged Coultas with two new assignments in 2009: move up to AA Binghamton, and become a starting pitcher for the first time as a professional. As with the transition to pitching in the first place, this has worked well. As Coultas explains, “I don’t know what went on behind closed doors as to the logic of the decision to have me start, but … I’m glad it happened. For developmental purposes, I couldn’t have asked for a better situation because I get to learn a lot more because I get to throw a lot more innings.” Indeed, Coultas currently leads the B-Mets with 64.2 innings under his belt.
However, one of Coultas’ impressive attributes as a pitcher, his strikeout rate in 2008, has declined considerably in 2009. Instead of eight whiffs per nine innings, Coultas is sitting at 4.6 K/9 in 2009 with a 1.7 K/BB ratio (33/17). The new pitcher attributes this both to a change in strategy in how he attacks hitters and in his pitch selection. First, the strategy, “as a starter you just try to get outs quickly. Last year, striking out guys… you’d get two strikes and that’s what you’d want to do, strike ‘em out. But as a starter, you give yourself a pitch to try to get ‘em, and if you don’t get, you gotta go right back to pitching to contact and get ‘em to put the ball in play because you want to get deep into the game. Obviously, striking out guys is great, but its not a high priority.” Secondly, Coultas has found comfort with a changeup this year, rather than relying on his curveball as his second pitch. This, too he thinks has helped lead to a decline in his K/rate, the “changeup has really become my go-to secondary pitch which is a little different than last year. Maybe that’s another reason why I get a lot more contact because the curveball – I kinda used it more as an out pitch and I try to use the changeup early to get guys out in front – a ground ball or lazy pop ups.”
Coultas acknowledges that his curveball “is still a bit of a project pitch.” He credits AA pitching coach Hector Berrios for his “tremendous” help in improving the offering and tweaking his grip: “it kinda got to be a little sloppy early in the year – a little loopy. I had it spiked, so I took the finger off and it now it’s a little harder and a little easier to command and comes out more like a fastball.”
A sponge, Coultas kept improving his changeup during the offseason, constantly seeking out advice from coaches and players. He owes Brandon Knight a favor, “The grip I got from Brandon Knight, because we were throwing in the off-season because we are both from Ventura, CA. I was just playing catch with him and the changeup was kinda similar to the one I was throwing before, but he just added a little variation to it.”
Coultas has been so successful at mixing his pitches and keeping the Eastern League off-balance that the Mets had to slow him down this week. Coultas is just 4.2 innings off his 2008 mark, not quite half-way through the minor league season, so the Mets skipped his turn in the rotation this week to prevent the innings from piling up and placing undue stress on Coultas’ now valuable am.
That the Mets are now carefully monitoring Coultas’ workload, treating him as valuable prospect is a dramatic change from his status in 2007, when he was embarking on a new career as a pitcher.