The Cutting Room Floor: Ryan Halstead

With Indiana heading into the NCAA Baseball Tournament, I finally got a chance to do a story on IU closer Ryan Halstead, and I was lucky enough to get the space to do it. The story, which details both his relationship with his brother — a professional graphic artist in San Francisco despite a congentive disorder that kept him from every having use of his arms — as well as the unlikely story that led him to Indiana, can be found here.

What was difficult about writing Halstead’s story is that there are numerous interesting stories about him, but they don’t all necessarily connect into one theme. Even the story that was printed is really two separate angles to his story that are only somewhat interwoven. And those are two of five angles/stories/anecdotes I was really pursuing. Maybe one half of those got any mention whatsoever in the story.

So as I do when I write long features that somehow just aren’t long enough, I bring to you some of the info that was left on the cutting room floor, this time in three unapologetically disconnected chunks.

The Evolution of Halstead

When the Hoosiers got Halstead, he had a good arm but was an extremely raw pitcher and even his velocity was not that overpowering. He could hit the 90s with his fastball, but he’d only pitched 16 innings total as a high schooler and wasn’t sure how best to use his stuff yet. He arrived for the 2011 season on a team in desperate need of anything approaching a closer though after Chris Squires had graduated from an otherwise abysmal staff and Halstead got the job.

In his freshman year, Halstead took mostly a pitch-to-contact approach, and for the most part it worked. He finished 3-2 with nine saves and a 3.16 earned run average despite striking out just 18 batters in 31 1/3 innings pitched and allowing opposing hitters to bat .285 against him.

In his sophomore year, though, that burned him. He struck out 10 more hitters in 15 more innings and his opponents batting average actually went down to .258, but his ERA shot up to 5.01 and he was gradually moved out of the role in favor of Jonny Hoffman, who became the most effective reliever in the Big Ten and was able to work as both a closer and long reliever.

So heading into this year with Hoffman gone and the closer’s role open again, Halstead amped up his preparation significantly and was especially dedicated to strengthening his arm to add velocity on his fastball while also developing more effective secondary pitches. He’s added both velocity and movement, and that’s helped him post his best numbers ever with a school-record 10 saves, a 2.27 ERA, 39 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings and a .185 opponents’ batting average.

“This year I just tried to focus on getting stronger and getting my arm in better shape than it was last year. Throwing a little bit harder than last year helps a lot, getting more strikeouts than I did last year,” Halstead said. “I knew I was going to be the closer coming in, I kind of set up a routine comeing in when I wanted to throw long toss. That kind of helped because last year, being a long-relief guy, I didn’t know when or how much I was gonna throw. This year knowing I was the closer just helps me. I have more of a throwing plan than last year.”

On top of the fastball, Halstead has developed a split-finger change-up. It isn’t Tracy Smith’s favorite pitch, but at least one teammate is a fan.

“He throws this split-grip change-up that the bottom just falls out and it’s 10 miles an hour slower to the fastball,” right-hander Aaron Slegers said. “I see that thing on TV a long with playing catch with him and it just looks nasty. It looks just like a fastball. It comes straight and he throws it with just the same arm speed as the fastball so you can’t tell, and at the last second it sort of dives, but it doesn’t have that forward spin like a breaking ball does or that side spin like a slider. It’s got fastball spin, but the bottom just falls out of it.”

Smith is less impressed, and said the next step in his evolution is to develop a breaking ball that breaks away from right-handers to counter a fastball that has arm-side run.

“I think he still has to develop a hard breaking away type pitch with his arm action,” Smith said. “When he does that, he’s gonna have a lot more success. When that happens, I think he’ll bag that split change thing that he’s hrowing now because it’s too different than his fastball. It comes off a different slot. I don’t know how the draft is going to go with him.  If he wants to come back and be a part of what I think is going to be a very good team next year, that will be our big emphasis is really developing a quality secondary pitch.”

M.C. Halstead

Halstead’s entire family is musically inclined. His father Ed learned to play guitar, bass and drums when he was young, and he was part of a progressive rock band that drew its influences from bands like Rush, Yes and Genesis. His sister Paige can play bass, and even his brother Josh, despite the disorder that keeps him from using his arms or hands, learned to play electronic drums mostly with his feet but also with drum sticks taped to his shoulders. Ryan, able-bodied as he is, can’t play a single instrument.

But what Halstead can do is write rhymes and spit lyrics on the fly. Though he doesn’t often show off anymore and he’s never recorded anything, he is a capable freestyle rapper.

“He keeps that sort of under wraps,” Slegers said. “He’s not one to walk into an apartment and start rapping. I haven’t heard it in over a year because it’s so famous lately. Everyone’s been begging him to do it. But when he unleashes it, it’s a talent. He’s something special.”

Said Halstead: “I just bust out some flows, you know. Whenever I’m feeling it, I never really do it. I don’t make any songs or anything. I’m not trying to do that, but I got some flows I kick out whenever people want to hear them.”

The talent was apparently discovered at random in the family’s music room. Josh was simply playing around with some music software and put a beat together, and Ryan simply went with it.

“One day him, and his sister and Josh, they said, come listen to this,” Halstead’s father Ed said. “Josh said, ‘Ryan can rap.’ I said, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ “No, he can.’ I said, you’ve gotta be kidding me. But Josh had laid down a track, and he would sing the hook, but Ryan did the rapping. It was good. I had no clue that he had any thing going on like that. I’m not a big rap music fan, but it was really good.”

A native Californian, Halstead his stylistic influences are West Coast rappers such as Dr. Dre, NWA, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Eazy E, even though most of his favorites hit the scene either before or shortly after he was born in 1992. His friends say his delivery style is similar even though his lyrics aren’t nearly as graphic and profane.

“No, no, no,” Halstead said with a laugh. “I didn’t live that lifestyle.”

Halstead has performed in front of IU coach Tracy Smith before as part of an ongoing roadtrip tradition. Freshman are always asked to stand up on the bus and tell the team about themselves. If they have a special talent, they’re asked to perform. Sometimes if they don’t have a talent, they’ve asked to perform anyway, which has led to some entertaining material for the weekly video “Skip’s Scoop,” that Smith and baseball sports information director Kyle Kuhlman post on the IU website.

Halstead’s performance left an impression.

“It’s awesome,” Smith said. “He’s really good at it. He needs to have a battle with (freshman reliever) Evan Bell. I think you guys would be really impressed.”

The Truck

Halstead has, bar none, the most recognizable automobile of any Indiana athlete in any sport. It’s a 2000 Chevrolet Suburban with a massive lift kit that makes it sit up almost like a monster truck, even though it’s built to be a family-friendly SUV. Painted on the hood and bleeding on to the grill is a massive and striking American flag.

Wherever Halstead goes on campus, he always gets a reaction.

“It’s hilarious,” said IU third baseman Dustin DeMuth, who rooms with Halstead along with Slegers. “Riding with him down Fee Lane when school is in session and just watching everybody’s head turn and point and look, it’s just hilarious.”

Said Slegers: “In the summer when people are out, we just love to take the long way around Bloomington and drive past some fraternity houses and they’re all saluting us on as we drive by. It’s was extremely funny when he first got it freshman year, but it’s kind of grown on us now.”

The truck is a hand-me-down from his father, who had the flag air-brushed on the truck not just as an ostentatious show of patriotism but for his business. Ed’s Brooklyn-born father and his mother, a native of Morocco, met when his father was in the Air Force and moved to California together where they started a business out of their garage in Pomona, Calif. making nails. With the entire family involved, they put together a fairly successful business and eventually sold it to Stanley Hand Tools. After selling that business, they created a new one that also involved nail manufacture that they called Halsteel, which Ed ran with his father.

Ed found it very important that all of the tools and all the materials he would work with in the manufacturing would be American made, and he wanted that to be his calling card, so he emphasized that with the flag as well as detail with the company name. He often had to make sales calls and trips to construction sites, so the lift kit was necessary for the good of the car.

Halstead eventually sold the company after he had a stress-induced stroke around 2006. He was essentially running three businesses at a time, training for triathlons, and trying to make sure those pursuits didn’t interfere with spending time with his children, so he often did most of the work he needed to do when they were asleep. The problem was that he was barely sleeping, and barely ever had a free moment when he was awake.

“If I were to describe my schedule to you, you would literally say, ‘You’re going to have a stroke,'” Ed Halstead said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Luckily for him it no longer affected him after about six months. He went into semi-retirement, but said that was driving his wife crazy, so he got back into business but in a way that would allow him to spend time with his kids and make the money he needed to continue to support them at the same time. He opened up a performance training center called EM Sports, working with athletes from little league through professional ranks.

All of that is to say that Ed no longer needs the truck for work calls, so it was passed on to Ryan and is now a Bloomington legend.

“Once I brought it out to Indiana it just became a sensation,” Halstead said. “It’s been like that for years. I’ve had some crazy stuff. Salutes, obviously waves, honks. People screaming out ‘America.’ It’s pretty crazy. If I drive up and people know me, they’re like ‘Are you serious is that you’re truck? I’m like, ‘Oh yeah.'”