It quickly became apparent to the Devil Rays that they had gotten a steal with their 6th round pick, big 6’4″, 260 right-hander Ryan Rupe out of Texas A&M. The 23 year old was a senior sign and was already 23 years old when his professional career began, but even against younger competition, he wasn’t supposed to dominate the way he did. His career began at Short Season-A Hudson Valley but he wasn’t there long as he blew away hitters to a 0.68 ERA and an 18-2 strikeout to walk ratio in 3 starts and 13.1 innings pitched before he was brought up to Low-A Charleston. With the RiverDogs, Rupe couldn’t quite live up to the same standards but continued to give hitters fits, going 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA, a 9.9 K/9, a 1.4 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 10 starts and 56.1 innings pitched to end the season. Rupe was polished and durable, and hitters couldn’t do anything against him. The D-Rays were looking forward to seeing what Rupe could do at higher levels.
The Devil Rays aggressively started Rupe with the Double-A Orlando Rays in 1999, and he continued to impress, managing a 2.53 ERA in 5 starts and 26.1 innings pitched. There were some warning signs- Rupe’s strikeout to walk ratio remained impressive at 22-6 and he allowed just 1 home runs, but those 22 strikeouts were a rate of just 7.5 per 9 innings, well below his 1998 rates, and his walk rate has also gone up to 2.1 per 9 innings. Rupe’s potential was evident, but he had work to do in order to reach his potential. However, the Rays honestly could not care less about the foreboding signals because they wanted to contend and their major league rotation was an absolute mess. By the end of 1999, the Rays’ rotation of Wilson Alvarez, Rolando Arrojo, Bobby Witt, Dave Eiland, Bobby Rekar, and Tony Saunders, all of whom received 9 or more starts, combined for a 5.34 ERA (88 ERA+), with only Alvarez managing an ERA under 5.15. There’s no positive way to spin that- but the Devil Rays were going nowhere and they should have just punted the season while giving their top prospects like Rupe time to develop. Instead, the Devil Rays were desperate enough to turn their rotation around that they called up Rupe to the major leagues after just 5 Double-A starts and not a single game at Triple-A. The results, actually, were pretty good. Rupe went 8-9 with a 4.55 ERA (108 ERA+, 8 % better than average), a 6.1 K/9, a 3.6 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 24 starts and 142.2 innings pitched. There was clearly still work to be done, but it was still impressive that he found a way to hold his own, especially with the pitchers around him collapsing left and right. However, there were clear flaws with his game. His FIP was just 4.80 as his strikeout to walk ratio was below 2-to-1 and flyball tendencies led to a homer rate that was too high. That wasn’t something that would be improved simply by facing major league hitters. Trial by fire wasn’t something his self-confidence was going to be able to take.
Rupe never threw very hard, topping out at 88-89 MPH with his fastball. He was able to throw it for strikes but was never able to command it down in the zone despite his 6’6″ frame. When Rupe was successful in his rookie season in 1999, he attacked hitters with a changeup around 80 MPH with good arm action late bottoming-out action that gave lefties fits and was even a weapon for him against righties when he had it going well. His third pitch was a sharp slider that he used to force weak contact and even work in as another put-away pitch when he was able to get on top of it and get it to look like a strike before breaking sharply. Those three pitches were the foundation of Rupe’s promising career as a mid-rotation type of starter. Entering the 1998 MLB Draft, Rupe’s lack of fastball velocity hid the fact that his overall arsenal was quite impressive. But to become a consistent major league starter, Rupe would have to improve his fastball command and get more consistency on his secondary pitches. That never had a real chance to happen as the D-Rays rushed him to the major leagues and never gave him enough time to develop.
In his rookie season in 1999, Ryan Rupe was incredibly inconsistent. In his fourth major league start on 5/23/99, Rupe was absolutely unhittable, going 9 innings allowing just a 7th inning single and a hit batsman and striking out 8 without walking a batter, in a game the D-Rays would lose 4-0 in 10 innings (by no fault of his whatsoever). It would be one of nine starts that Rupe would make where he went 7 innings allowing 2 runs or less and one of four games where he struck out 7 or more batters. However, he also allowed 5 or more runs eight times and walked as many batters he struck out if not more eleven times as well. He had his moments when he was hitting spots with his fastball and hitters didn’t have a chance on his secondary pitches. But the inconsistency that plagued Rupe in his rookie season was something he never was able to fix and was only exasperated as the league got a better look at him- in his final four major league seasons from 1999 to 2003, Rupe went just 16-29 with a 6.41 ERA (72 ERA+) in 60 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 334.1 innings pitched. Rupe should have spent 1999 between Double-A and Triple-A and at least the start of 2000 back in the minors before finally making his big league debut. Maybe the results would have been the same if Rupe had followed that path instead of the one he took- considering Rupe missed time in 2000 with a blod clot, his career may have even turned out worse. But we’ll never know how things would have turned out and all we can do is look at the numbers and try to figure out how a talented pitcher went from top prospect to solid major league pitcher to total flameout in just a two year span.
The signature pitch of the Rays organization these days is the changeup. Ryan Rupe was a forebear of that, with his outstanding changeup being the reason for his success in 1999 and his inconsistency with it the rest of his career a major reason he came apart so quickly. When you think changeup these days, different baseball fans will think of different players, but for Rays fans, the first two names that pop into their heads are James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson. Shields and Hellickson were different situations compared to Rupe as draft picks out of high school, but Shields spent five full years in the minors before breaking into the big leagues and Hellickson spent six. Both of them were seemingly ready for the major leagues sooner than the Rays gave them a chance- Shields went 8-5 with a 2.97 ERA and a 110-34 strikeout to walk ratio in 115.1 innings at Triple-A in 2005 while Hellickson was a ridiculous 9-2 with a 2.45 ERA, and a 132-29 strikeout to walk ratio in 114 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2009 and had to essentially repeat that type of performance at Triple-A the next year before the Rays finally called him up. Rupe was never going to turn into the type of pitcher that Shields and Hellickson have become. However, from 2006 to 2009, the first four years of his major league career, Shields went 43-36 with a 4.01 ERA (111 OPS+), a 7.1 K/9, a 1.9 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 in 118 starts and 774.1 innings pitched. Ryan Rupe could have become that same type of pitcher.
Rupe’s fastball velocity was a few ticks behind where Shields’ was at that point of his career (Shields has gained velocity as his career has progressed), but he had the potential to force more groundballs if he could harness the downward angle his height gave him in his delivery, had a nice changeup that was nowhere near Shields’ caliber but could have gotten closer with more time in the minor leagues, and his slider was a much better pitch than the curveball Shields throws. Ryan Rupe had a chance to be a solid number three starter in the major leagues for quite a while if only he had come up with the Rays ten years later when the Rays had shifted their organizational philosophy to take their prospects along extremely slowly to give them all the time they need to reach their potential. Now, instead of potentially being a 37 year old pitcher finishing off a productive MLB career, Rupe is only a symbol of exactly the type of future the Rays do everything in their power to help their young pitchers avoid.