With the exception of a ballplayer's parents, wife and youth coaches, no one sweats the ups and downs of his career more than the scout who signed him to his first professional contract. So when pitcher Ryan Cook took a pounding in his first big league appearance with the Arizona Diamondbacks, it was comforting to get a pep talk from a familiar voice from the past.
Cook's debut against Milwaukee on July 20, 2011, was straight out of a Wes Craven movie. He entered a tie game in the 10th inning and gave up a single to Mark Kotsay to start the inning. After a wild pitch, a walk, a balk and RBI singles to Nyjer Morgan and Ryan Braun, Cook handed the ball to manager Kirk Gibson and headed for the dugout. He left Chase Field with an 0-1 record, a battered psyche and an ERA of infinity.
Not good. But Cook received a welcomed dose of perspective the following day when he got a call from Hal Kurtzman, the veteran scout who watched him as a high schooler in Fresno, Calif., and later signed him out of the 2008 draft.
"I told him, 'In a few years, when you're one of the top relievers in all of baseball, you and your buddies will be able to laugh. You can tell them, 'Hey, you think your first day was brutal? How about listening to my story?''' Kurtzman recalls.
The old scout was on target with his prediction. He was just a bit conservative on the timetable.
You probably haven't heard much about Cook, because he's pitching as a setup man for an Oakland Athletics team that entered the season with modest expectations and ranks 29th in the majors in both team payroll and attendance. But he's going to have trouble staying anonymous if he keeps putting up zeroes at this rate.
Cook entered Saturday's game against the New York Yankees with a streak of 22 2/3 scoreless innings to begin the season. The A's knew they were getting a promising power righty when they acquired Cook along with Jarrod Parker and Collin Cowgill in the trade that sent Trevor Cahill to Arizona in December. But they weren't expecting this kind of dominance.
"There are days when he goes out there and you watch his stuff the first couple of pitches, and you know that nobody is going to get a hit off him,'' A's assistant general manager David Forst said. "His stuff is as electric as anybody we've seen here in a long time.''
Cook's numbers aren't as gaudy as those of Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, who has allowed one unearned run this season and has a 43-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a WHIP of 0.58 in 24 1/3 innings. But Cook's early statistical achievements are nevertheless stunning:
• Cook has allowed four hits in 22 2/3 innings. Righties are batting .079 against him (3-for-38) and lefties are hitting .031 (1-for-32). The only hit by a left-hander was a double by Boston's David Ortiz on May 2.
• According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cook has been a master at inducing weak contact. Of the balls put in play against him, only 6 percent have been line drives. That's miniscule. And the percentage of plate appearances that end with a well-hit ball in play against him (yes, the number-crunchers diligently track this category) is sixth-best in the majors.
• Cook's slider was particularly formidable the night of April 27, when he struck out four Baltimore Orioles in an inning of work. Of the 19 sliders put in play against him this season, 15 have been ground balls. The pitch is virtually lift-proof.
"His stuff is disgusting, with angry movement,'' Oakland starter Brandon McCarthy said in an email. "It just gets to a point and goes violently in another direction.''
Cook also throws a splitter and a fastball that averages 95 mph and touches 97. He's always had a thing for speed. But it took awhile to translate to baseball.
Cook grew up in Clovis, Calif., near Fresno, and his father, Chuck, took part in weekly drag races at Bakersfield Speedway. Young Ryan naturally followed suit. He drove a go-cart on the five acres around the family house, then graduated to quarter midgets and micro sprints on a dirt oval track. He indulged his passion for driving until his teen years, when baseball shot to the top of his priority list. He played for longtime coach James Patrick at Clovis High and showed enough promise to be recruited by a big-time Division I program at the University of Southern California.
The hardest part of becoming a reliever was realizing there's no time to cruise. It's, 'Get good and get nasty right away. Otherwise, it's going to be too late.' I started to succeed more once I realized that.
”-- Ryan Cook
Cook went 18-13 with a 5.33 ERA in three seasons with the Trojans, and the Diamondbacks weren't expecting much when they drafted him in the 27th round. The storyline took a twist the summer after the draft when Cook pitched for the Santa Barbara Foresters in the California Collegiate League. His velocity spiked, hitters began flailing and the Diamondbacks were sufficiently impressed to sign him to an $80,000 bonus.
In Cook's estimation, his breakthrough stemmed from a new, constraint-free mindset. He went back to square one upon leaving USC, and everything suddenly clicked.
"For a while in college, I was so worried about my mechanics and the speed differential in pitches and putting the ball right where I wanted it,'' Cook says. "I went to Santa Barbara and told myself, 'Just get back to what you used to do in high school. Throw it as hard as you can, put the ball where it needs to be and let the results take care of themselves.' I started focusing on the results more than the process.''
The Diamondbacks made a prudent decision in 2011 when they decided to move Cook from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Cook struck out 62 batters in 61 innings with Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno and found a comfort level in his new role.
"As a starter, I would kind of cruise in a game until a situation required me to get nasty or make great pitches or punch somebody out,'' Cook says. "The hardest part of becoming a reliever was realizing there's no time to cruise. It's, 'Get good and get nasty right away. Otherwise, it's going to be too late.' I started to succeed more once I realized that.''
Cook also benefits from his ability to soak in advice from older teammates and roll with the bad times. After his disastrous debut against Milwaukee, he had a long, productive talk with Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, who assured him that big league hitters are mortal and he was going to start recording some outs soon enough. Cook is eternally grateful for that veteran perspective.
"It was definitely a humbling moment in my career -- to fulfill your dreams and then basically have them shot down like that,'' he says. "It's a little bit natural to wonder, 'Oh my gosh, can I get guys out here?'''
Cook isn't wondering anymore, and American League hitters are sold. Athletics closer Brian Fuentes has been a big help to him as a veteran mentor, and Cook loves playing for manager Bob Melvin in Oakland. He naturally aspires to a closing role one day, but he's happy to serve his apprenticeship in a setup role.
Even though Arizona traded Cook nearly six months ago, Kurtzman continues to pull for the kid. But superstition dictates that some things -- like a scoreless innings streak -- are better left unsaid.
"If you talk to Ryan, let him know I'm rooting for him from afar,'' Kurtzman says. "I guess it's just a silly quirk from a scout. But I can't send him a congratulatory text until he gives up that run.''