Moments after pulling his prized pitching pupil from a game, Travis Barbary followed a frustrated Ryan Pepiot into a dugout tunnel to deliver a much-needed message.
Pepiot, one of the Dodgers’ best prospects, had just had one of the worst starts of his professional career, giving up six runs in Salt Lake City before being pulled in the third inning. He was mired in one of the few slumps he’d faced since being drafted in the third round in 2019, struggling to adjust to his first stint in triple A.
And as he came off the mound that September night, the 24-year-old’s frustration was peaking.
“I got in my own head with some things,” Pepiot said.
Barbary, the Dodgers’ triple A manager, wanted to remind him that his talent was still supreme, that almost every player hits bumps on their journey as a prospect, that a first major league call-up wasn’t as far as it seemed.
“Look, you’re gonna use this as a learning experience,” Barbary recalled telling Pepiot. “When things don’t go your way, how are you gonna respond?”
This season, Pepiot has offered a resounding answer.
And, eight months after his low point, he had a very different conversation with Barbary on Monday afternoon — informed he’d be joining the Dodgers to make his debut in a Wednesday start at the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It’s a dream come true,” Pepiot said Tuesday, sitting in the dugout at PNC Park. “I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.”
But his biggest growth came over the past year.
For most of his baseball life, Pepiot’s talent keyed his ascent. The Indianapolis native starred at Butler University, where his elite changeup put him on the radar with scouts. After being drafted, his stock skyrocketed after a sharp season in single A and dominant spring performance in 2020. After beginning last season in double A, he continued to impress with a quick tempo and aggressive approach, earning a promotion to triple A in August.
“He’d basically just suffocate guys with stuff,” Dodgers director of minor league pitching Rob Hill said. “Just shove it down their throats.”
But once Pepiot reached the doorstep of the majors, everything changed. He was challenged by higher-caliber hitters and struggled to find a feel for his slider. At the end of his first full professional season, he began to fatigue too.
Suddenly, his assertive style backfired, with Pepiot unable to slow down the game when needed and navigate his way out of trouble.
After posting a 7.13 earned-run average in 11 appearances with Oklahoma City to finish last season, he struggled with the mental repercussions of a setback.
“I knew the mental part of baseball is massive,” Pepiot said. “But it just hadn’t really hit me until that moment.”
So, he focused on his mental approach this winter. He spoke with psychologists ahead of spring training. And he came into the year better prepared to make the final leap up the minor-league ladder.
“It’s just helped me be more grounded and more within myself, not trying to put too much pressure on myself to go out there and be successful every time,” he said. “I wanted to get out ahead of it and make sure that I was OK whatever happened, whether it was a good or if it was a bad moment.”
Throughout spring training, Dodgers staff noticed his renewed attitude. During six starts with Oklahoma City this season, in which he posted a 2.05 ERA and racked up three times as many strikeouts (36) as walks (12) in 26⅓ innings, he struck a better balance with his approach on the mound, as well.
“Failure is a precursor to success, especially at as high of a level of skill that Ryan has,” Hill said. “So I think that was an essential part of this journey. Very few people can just waltz straight to the big leagues and do their thing.
“[Last year] was tough as it was going on … But it ultimately ended up being a good thing, because he came back this year with a fresh approach.”
There’s also been physical improvements from Pepiot, the team’s No. 2 pitching prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.
His fastball command is more consistent, especially on the left side of the plate. He tinkered with his slider, taking a little velocity off to differentiate it from his changeup. And he’s sequenced all three pitches more effectively, making his arsenal less predictable and his starts more efficient.
“To be able to get ahead, get weak contact, take my strikeouts when I can and let the defense work behind me has helped me be successful,” Pepiot said.
Wednesday might not be a one-off for Pepiot, either. The Dodgers needed a spot starter for the game because of their doubleheader this past Saturday, but they also have a doubleheader next Tuesday and will get just one off day until June 6.
Though manager Dave Roberts didn’t commit to Pepiot pitching again beyond Wednesday, he is planning to use a six-man rotation for a stretch this month.
If all goes well in his debut, Pepiot could have the chance to stick in the rotation.
“This is a talented ballclub to be a part of, so just one day is amazing,” Pepiot said. “So I’m gonna do what I can to give them the best chance to win.”
For now, overcoming the mental obstacles of last year and getting a chance to take a big-league mound in front of friends and family — Pepiot expects to have plenty in attendance Wednesday — is more than enough.
“The word that can kind of encapsulate Ryan to this point is ‘resolve,’” Hill said. “You can tell now when he’s on the mound, he’s resolute in what he’s doing. And he’s ready to just do his thing.”