Baltimore Orioles pitching strategy coach Ryan Klimek will take a moment just before the start of Saturday’s American League Division Series opener at Camden Yards to soak in the atmosphere. From the dugout steps, the Greece Arcadia and SUNY Geneseo graduate will gaze into the stands at the seat where he watched an O’s playoff game nine years ago, and reflect on his remarkable journey from fan to Major League Baseball coach. The 32-year-old might even be moved to pinch himself, you know, just to make sure he’s not dreaming.
“At times, it still feels a little surreal,’’ Klimek said the other day, while driving to Baltimore’s iconic ballpark. “There are moments when I have to ask myself, ‘Is this really happening?’ ’’
It is a question long-suffering Orioles fans have been asking themselves, too.
Just three years ago, the O’s were in the throes of a 110-loss season, finishing in the basement, 48 games behind the first-place Tampa Bay Rays. This season, though, they authored one of the most rapid rejuvenations in baseball history, winning 101 games, while making the transformation from “Leasts” to “Beasts” of the AL East. And while the lion’s share of credit belongs to mastermind general manager Mike Elias, even-keeled manager Brandon Hyde, and a talented roster, led by phenom catcher Adley Rutschman, young creatives like Klimek have pitched in, too.
Working closely with the analytics department, Rutschman, backup catcher James McCann, and the pitching staff, Klimek develops detailed plans to thwart opposing hitters. They are based on everything from batters’ tendencies to what pitch to throw and where and when to throw it. After each inning, Klimek confers with that day’s catcher, and occasionally with the pitcher, to discuss whether any adjustments are needed.
“Think of a defensive coordinator in football,’’ Klimek explained. “I’m coming up with a gameplan based on the data, the hitters we’re facing, and our pitcher’s strengths, which vary from pitcher to pitcher. Like football, you occasionally have to tweak things in real time, depending on the type of stuff your pitcher has that day, and the situation. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
The chess game strategy from pitch-to-pitch is fascinating and combines Klimek’s mathematics degree skills with his longtime passion for the game — a passion cultivated by his father, Roger Klimek, a longtime, highly respected teacher and coach in the Greece School District. Though Ryan may have been a better basketball than baseball player, he’s always romanticized more about the national pastime than hoops.
“I’m a basketball addict, but I come from a baseball family,’’ he said. “My dad played baseball [at Ithaca College] and coached it, and we would take family trips to different ballparks. I remember many trips to Montreal Expos games when I was young. Baseball was in my blood from an early age.”
His younger brother, Steve, became the best player in the family. Drafted out of St. Bonaventure University in the 33rd round, he climbed all the way to Double-A before his career was derailed by bone spurs in his elbow.
“As I’ve learned from my involvement in baseball operations, what Steve did, to reach that level as a low-round pick is pretty remarkable because organizations tend to give up on lower-round picks much sooner,’’ Ryan said. “Steve had a much better feel for pitching than I ever did. I was more of a first baseman. I guess it’s kind of ironic that I — a guy who never pitched professionally — would wind up developing strategy for major league pitchers.”
The Orioles still have traditional pitching coaches — coaches who deal with the mechanics of pitching; how to throw certain pitches, etc. But thanks to the progressive thinking of Elias and Hyde, Ryan has been able to “carve out my own little niche.” And, while doing so, he has gained the trust of the O’s brain trust and their pitchers and catchers. The proof is in the pudding. It’s hard to argue with the results the Orioles’ pitchers have experienced during this metamorphosis from laughingstocks to the best record in the AL.
They have come a long way. And so has Klimek. A decade ago, shortly after receiving his degree, he sat on his parents’ living room couch, feeling blue. He didn’t have a job and was uncertain about his future.
“My mother [Loretta] asked me: ‘What would you like to do?’ ’’ Klimek recalled. “And I said I’d like to work in the front office of a major league team. And she said: ‘Well, you need to do some research and find out how to break into the business.’ ’’
Two years later, he landed an internship as a minor-league videographer in the Seattle Mariners organization. A year later, he was an intern with the Los Angeles Angels. And a year after that he was an intern in the Orioles advanced scouting department.
“It was all seasonal work,” he said. “You were lucky if you were making minimum wage. It was a grind — 80-hour work weeks — and once those seasons ended, I was back home, living in my parents’ house and substitute teaching in the Greece School District. I was broke, and I didn’t know if I would ever catch my break. But my parents and my siblings kept encouraging me, kept pushing me. Without their support, I never, ever would have wound up where I am.”
In 2018, Klimek was hired full time by the Orioles as a videographer and advance scout. Three years later, he began working with the pitching staff. Last season, Klimek was given a uniform and began spending games in the dugout. He has come to love the moxie of this team. “There have been situations, where I’ve thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’re in trouble,’ but these guys always seem to find a way to win,’’ he said. “They believe in themselves and in each other. Everyone you play in the postseason is good, so you never know. But I like this team’s chances a lot.”
Few pundits thought much of the Orioles’ chances this season, despite the significant strides they had made in 2022. Many figured there would be a regression, especially in a division loaded with the Rays, New York Yankees, and Toronto Blue Jays. But the Orioles refused to listen to the doomsayers, and now expectations are soaring.
“I feel the pressure, more stress, because each pitch matters more in October than in other months,’’ Klimek said. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way. This is what you dream about. This is where you want to be.”
Making your pitch that you belong.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills,” co-authored with John Murphy, is available in bookstores and via Amazon.-