Joe Ryan Has Plenty of Margin for Error

© Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Twins starting rotation is a clear area of weakness for the team as they head into the 2022 season. The departures of José Berríos, J.A. Happ, and Michael Pineda, plus Kenta Maeda’s elbow injury, drained the group of some serious talent. Before the lockout, Minnesota’s only move to address this concern was to add Dylan Bundy on a one-year deal. For all sorts of reasons, it seems clear the team just isn’t likely to bring in another quality starter from outside the organization. Instead, I suspect the Twins are hoping some of their young starters will take a significant step forward in 2022.

Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan, and Randy Dobnak have fewer than 50 career starts between them but each is likely to hold down a significant role this year. Earlier this week, I examined Ober’s deep arsenal and the path he could take toward a breakout sophomore season. Despite being injured for most of 2021, the five-year extension Dobnak signed before the season should give him a long leash to prove he can be a successful major league starter. Luke Hooper already investigated the intriguing addition of Jharel Cotton to the pitching staff (though his role is far from defined at this point). As for Ryan, he has a fascinating profile that has the potential to be the best of the bunch.

Ryan was a seventh round pick in the 2018 draft out of Cal State Stanislaus. He was assigned to Low-A that same year and started racking up tons of strikeouts. After blowing through three levels of the minors in 2019, he started appearing on Rays prospect lists, debuting at 13th on the 2020 list as a 45 FV. In all, he compiled a 36.7% career strikeout rate as a member of Tampa Bay’s farm system. Questions about his fastball, which sat around 90-94 mph, and a lack of quality secondary stuff held him back from rising any higher on our prospect lists despite the elite results he was putting up at each level.

Eventually, Ryan was traded to the Twins in the Nelson Cruz deal and made his major league debut on September 1. The strikeouts continued to come in the big leagues, as he sent down 30% of the batters he faced on strikes. He wound up with a 3.43 FIP and a phenomenal 6.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio across his five starts during the final month of the season.

As a minor leaguer, Ryan leaned heavily on his fastball, throwing it upwards of 70% of the time. It was a strategy that worked, as the gaudy strikeout totals show, but the confusing thing was the relatively unimpressive raw characteristics of the pitch:

Joe Ryan’s Fastball Characteristics
Velocity V Mov H Mov Spin Rate
Measurement 91.2 14.6 -10.9 2175
Percentile Rank 13 22 88 27

Ryan’s heater sits well below league average in three of the categories above, with only it’s horizontal movement standing out. That’s not exactly the metric you want your four-seam fastball to feature. Obviously, something is missing from this cursory look at the pitch’s shape.

Ryan’s heater is the perfect example of why simply using velocity and movement to define a pitch’s shape misses out on a critical part of a fastball’s success. Of course, I’m talking about vertical approach angle (VAA), a relatively new concept that’s very popular among analytically-inclined pitching staffs like the Twins’. Vertical approach angle describes a pretty intuitive concept — the angle at which a pitch crosses home plate. Both Ethan Moore and Alex Chamberlain have written fantastic primers on the idea, which I’d encourage you to check out. At the most basic level, fastballs with a flat VAA (four-seamers) are most effective up in the zone, steep VAAs (sinkers) are effective down in the zone, and VAAs for breaking balls and offspeed pitches don’t really matter all that much.

It’s also important to note that VAA is a function of a pitch’s velocity, release height, and location. Those three interrelated factors can help us understand why an extreme VAA would help a pitch outperform its raw physical characteristics. (I discussed the relationship between release height and location with respect to Paul Sewald’s fastball back in August.) When we dig into Ryan’s approach angle, it quickly becomes clear he’s a flat-fastball darling:

Joe Ryan’s Fastball Approach Angle
Vertical Release Vertical Location Vertical Approach Angle
Measurement 5.1 2.85 -4.2
Percentile Rank 97 69 95

Ryan’s low three-quarters release point is extremely low for a starter, on the same level as Aaron Nola and Freddy Peralta, two other low slot, flat-fastball throwers. The extreme VAA Ryan generates is almost exclusively produced by his release point; his vertical location just isn’t all that impressive. Just look at this heat map of his fastball locations from 2021:

While it’s clear Ryan is trying to elevate his heater, there are far too many fastballs located in the middle of the zone too. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing though! As Justin Choi showed, pitchers with above average stuff have margin for error if they locate their fastballs over the heart of the plate. Chris Langin, a pitching coordinator for Driveline, posted a Twitter thread on Thursday that elucidates this concept a little further:

To sum up Langin’s findings: fastballs thrown from low arm slots are far more effective across the board, and perform better in all areas of the zone, not just the upper third. There is certainly some element of deception going on here. A flat fastball is going to “jump” over a batter’s bat as he swings, leading to whiffs and elevated contact. This effect becomes more pronounced the higher the pitch is located, but it still occurs even if the pitch is thrown lower in the zone. This is how Walker Buehler has been so successful with his four-seamer down in the zone.

Ryan’s average location towards the heart of the zone might be holding his fastball back from truly becoming an elite pitch. His four-seamer generated a swinging strike 11.4% of the time and a 30.3% CSW in 2021, both marks a bit above the league average for the pitch type. Based on the flatness of his fastball, I’d expect both of those metrics to be much better than they actually were. If Ryan really wants to maximize the strengths of his heater, he’ll need to work on consistently executing his pitches up in the zone. That’s the path to truly unlocking a monster pitch.

The other sticking point in Ryan’s scouting reports were his lagging secondary pitches. In limited samples, both of his breaking balls looked like they’d play at the major league level. Both his slider and curveball ran double digit swinging strike rates — 18.2% and 15.6%, respectively — giving him three weapons to attack batters with. His slider in particular is fascinating. Described as a slow cutter while he was a prospect, he’s definitely worked on the shape of the pitch to give it a bit more action. But where the pitch truly stands out is its spin axis. His slider has a spin deviation of 41.9 degrees (or 1 hour, 45 minutes if you’re more familiar with using a clock to describe spin axes); that’s the fifth highest deviation for a slider thrown by a right-handed pitcher:

That kind of spin deviation indicates he’s throwing the pitch with some heavy seam-shifted wake. It might not sweep like the sliders the Dodgers have been helping their pitchers throw, but Ryan’s slider has plenty of traits that should make it an effective pitch in the majors. Oh, and it just happens that his curveball is nearly a perfect spin mirror to his fastball. Both of those secondary pitches look a lot better than expected based on his prospect scouting reports.

Ryan repertoire is a perfect example of the quickly growing understanding of what makes individual pitches so effective. Simply looking at the raw characteristics of each pitch — velocity, movement, and spin rate — doesn’t tell the whole story. Only by looking deeper at each pitch can we really grasp how Ryan found so much success in the minors and in his first taste of the majors, despite traditionally unimpressive stuff. During his five major league starts in September, he threw his fastball around 65% of the time, right in line with his usage in the minors. With a little better location and better use of his two breaking balls he could be on the verge of anchoring the Twins rotation for years to come. But even if he doesn’t make those adjustments, his arsenal has so much margin for error built into it, he should find success at the highest level anyway.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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10 months ago

I’ve been waiting for this article! Ryan is fascinating, and I look forward to seeing more of him.