Back issue forces LI's Stephen Ridings to turn down the heat
TAMPA, Fla. — The only downside to possessing a 100-mph fastball? One of the game’s most prized possessions is useless when you can’t throw it, which is why Stephen Ridings these days wears the frustration of someone whose Ferrari ran out of gas on the LIE.
At least Ridings, the former closer for St. Anthony’s and pride of Commack North Little League, is parked in a very coveted spot right now. He’s got a locker in the Yankees’ clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field, something he didn’t have a year ago at this time.
What Ridings really needs, however, is to return to the mound. And the achingly slow recovery from what he describes as a “slipped disc” in his back suffered during the winter has stalled his first spring training in major-league camp.
Ironically, the Yankees putting him on the 40-man roster in November — to protect him from a Rule 5 draft that ultimately never was held because of the lockout — may have contributed to the delay caused by his back condition.
Ridings, you may recall, dazzled in his Bronx debut last August, striking out the side with triple-digit fastballs in a 13-1 rout of the Orioles.
“All I want to do is get back there,” Ridings said Tuesday. “Best night of my life.”
But he had to be shut down after making five appearances (1.80 ERA, seven strikeouts in five innings) with the Yankees because of elbow inflammation (since dissipated) and didn’t pitch again before later resuming his regular offseason workouts.
That plan went sideways in January when Ridings had something go wrong in his back while doing deadlifts at the Cressey Sports Performance Center in Palm Beach Gardens.
“It was mid-lift, nothing I haven’t done before,” Ridings said. “And then during one set, it didn’t budge and I had a sharp pain . . . It was a disc protruding. There wasn’t any clear rehab for it, as much as just don’t [aggravate it]."
Normally, that would involve the Yankees monitoring his offseason conditioning, and Eric Cressey — a co-founder and president of those centers — is the director of player health and performance for the team. But with Major League Baseball locking out all of the 40-man roster players on Dec. 2 as part of its CBA negotiating strategy, that meant no contact of any kind with team personnel, and Ridings, like many others, was left to secure his own medical care. That meant getting an orthopedist through the performance center rather than having the Yankees put him on a track toward spring training.
Also, Ridings may have tried to throw too soon — he was concerned about maintaining arm strength — and that seemed to complicate his issues. It was understandable behavior for a 26-year-old coming off his first taste of the majors, trying to do whatever he could to be ready for his spring audition. Instead, Ridings became one of the unseen casualties of the labor conflict.
“The lockout being the lockout, and not being able to communicate with everybody, it was tough to get on the right path and how to navigate it,” Ridings said. “So there were plenty of ups and downs, and setbacks, and flareups. It was frustrating, but I’m sure I’m not the only person it’s happened to.”
Then again, it’s not as if Ridings hasn’t already overcome plenty of obstacles to get here. The Cubs made him the 254th overall pick of the 2016 draft, out of Haverford College, and he wasn’t able to pitch at all in 2020 when COVID-19 closed the minor leagues. But once Ridings started to light up the radar gun last season at Double-A Somerset and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (22 games, 13.0 K/9, 0.69 WHIP), he got his break when two Yankees tested positive.
On that Aug. 3 night at the Stadium, with his parents in attendance, Ridings got seven swings-and-misses on 16 pitches. He also threw the five highest-velocity pitches of that night, according to Statcast: 100.9, 100.2, 99.3, 98.9 and 98.7.
“He blew us away stuff-wise,” Aaron Boone said Tuesday. “From our standpoint, kind of came out of nowhere. Didn't even really know what we had when he got to the big leagues. We just kind of tossed him in there, and it was pretty electric stuff. So hopefully he can get healthy and put himself in the mix again.”
Ridings said that eye-popping velocity wasn’t all Bronx adrenaline. He described it as coming fairly easy to him later in his career, and attributed the recent boost to a “multi-faceted approach” of putting on weight, getting stronger and improving his mechanics.
The challenge now is getting that velo back, as well as having his body be capable of harnessing such high speeds consistently without injury. Throwing that hard often comes with paying a physical toll — something the 6-8 Ridings is painfully aware of — and like everyone else, he often wonders how much a human body can take.
“Oh, absolutely,” Ridings said. “Crosses my mind all the time. I see guys like [Aroldis Chapman] out there doing it all the time, and Gerrit [Cole] doing it all the time. Maybe there’s something I’m just missing. I don’t know. But everybody’s different.”
For now, Ridings isn’t so much worried about cranking up to 100 again as simply pitching, period. “I’m taking it slow,” he said, a gear he’s never really used in pinstripes.