The Twins Joe Ryan Talks Sliders, Vertical Approach Angle… and Water Polo

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Joe Ryan’s name is well-known to FanGraphs readers, particularly those who are into pitching analytics. As Jake Mailhot wrote when profiling him back in January, the 25-year-old Minnesota Twins right-hander succeeds in part because of an extreme vertical approach angle. Thrown from an atypical arm slot, Ryan’s four-seamer — despite averaging a modest 92 mph — is especially effective up in the zone. As Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin wrote last month, “Throughout his time in the minors, Ryan’s strikeout rate has left many scratching their heads.”

His ability to miss bats has thus far translated to the big leagues. Since debuting with the Twins last September, the former Tampa Bay Rays prospect — Ryan came to Minnesota as part of last July’s Nelson Cruz deal — has allowed just 23 hits, with 41 strikeouts, in 36-and-two-thirds big league innings.

Ryan — No. 6 on our 2022 Minnesota Twins Top Prospects list — discussed his approach angle, and the repertoire that goes with it, prior to a recent game at Fenway Park.


David Laurila: The majority of FanGraphs readers are familiar with your pitching profile. That said, how would you describe it?

Joe Ryan: “I’m not sure. I don’t think about it too big-picture, or try to analyze myself in that way. Simplistically, I’m a strike-thrower that fills up the zone, tries to hit my spots, and pitches to my strengths. I’m also always trying to develop new pitches and make everything else better, and more consistent. I’m not trying to overhaul, but rather I tinker a lot. Maybe not a lot, but I am always wanting a little more.”

Laurila: I brought up your slider before we started talking on the record. Can you say a little on that?

Ryan: “The slider is better than it has been. Getting comfortable with the grip, working with [Chris] Archer to make some other cues… before, I was trying to spin it a little too much. Now I’m just maintaining arm speed, holding it, and getting out front. It’s coming out harder, too. I think staying through it longer with my hand got me that velocity, and the action I was looking for.”

Laurila: Can you elaborate on “trying to spin it a little too much”?

Ryan: “I was trying to create movement on the backside instead of letting everything happen out front. Basically, I was trying to spin it too early. I was trying to spin a curveball by my ear, to create arc, instead of letting my hand work through its natural arm path to create spin out front.”

Laurila: But you are trying to spin the ball, manipulate the ball…

Ryan: “Yes. It’s finger pressure on the grip, and then just finishing it that way. But I’m not really trying to manipulate my wrist, or turn anything. Mentally, I think index finger. Your middle finger is going to be the last finger to come off — the middle finger is still going to be dominant — but index finger pressure as the mental cue helps me to stay on it a little longer. Just emphasizing the middle finger pressure, which I do on my curveball… it’s a little bit slower and is going release a little bit earlier.”

Laurila: How similar is your slider to Archer’s?

Ryan: “I haven’t looked at the data. But it also depends a lot on the arm slot, right? For me, it’s going to be the lower arm slot. I don’t know how accurate our TrackMan is, but I’ve been getting pitches in the 4.4 range — release height — to 4.10, which is pretty low. So, it’s finding how that pitch is going to work, how that shape is going to build. Arch has a little higher arm slot, so we’re going to have different pitch characteristics.”

Laurila: When people have written about your approach angle, they’ve generally done so in regard to your fastball. How does it impact your breaking ball?

Ryan: “It was a struggle for me to find that at the beginning, to find a traditional slider. How I was trying to think about it was a little bit different than my arm path. As I got my arm path figured out, it was like, ‘OK, this is where my slot is, this is where my hand is, this is where it’s comfortable, so let me find a grip, and then find the adjustments I need.’

“It helps me to watch other pitchers. Pedro [Martinez]. I think watching Aaron Nola helps me, because he had that whippy arm out front. Everything was happening out there. So, not necessarily taking what he was doing pitch-wise, but just his mechanics, how he was staying long and whipping everything out front. That helps me mentally. OK, I can stay out front and whip through that with my hand.’”

Laurila: What is the movement profile on your slider?

Ryan: “Sometimes it’s a -0.5. That would be good for me. Between three and seven horizontal. Not crazy. I think coming from the low slot helps a lot. I think more cutter with it [as opposed to] creating a slider.”

Laurila: Have you always thrown the exact same way?

Ryan: “I looked at some photos from high school, from when I was a junior — maybe a sophomore — and I was a little more angled over the top. My arm slot was the same. I think I just got my shoulders more level, and comfortable, and then my hand was in the same… I think my shoulder slot has always been the same position, but I was tilted over a little bit more. It was more of a trunk tilt, as opposed to changing my actual slot.

“I used to try to throw like Tim Lincecum a little bit when I was younger. That was probably in middle school into my freshman year of high school. I was a Giants fan, and he was a beast. But the shoulder — the slot for the shoulder — has always felt pretty similar. I think it’s just keeping my head a little bit more still and staying on line longer, which gets me out front. I think that comes from water polo, too.”

Laurila: Water polo?

Ryan: “I played from sixth grade through my senior year of high school. You’re skipping the ball and rotating through the water with mostly your trunk. You’ve got to get extension to skip the ball. You can’t just throw down, from right in front of you, or it’s just going to stop in the water. So, I’m trying to throw out, and get extension, and create that spin. It’s like a late hand speed to create that.”

Laurila: What is the spin efficiency on your fastball?

Ryan: “It’s usually 100% efficiency. That’s always been there. It’s been 98-100% in every bullpen, ever. If I try to throw a bad one, it’s still 98-100.”

Laurila: Is the curveball an important pitch for you?

Ryan: “It’s very important. I think it’s how I shot up through the minors. It taught me how to throw an off-speed pitch a little bit more consistently, the effectiveness of changing speeds. And then also how it plays off my fastball with the 12-6. It’s maybe a little bit more lateral than a 12-6, but having a straight up-and-down pitch helps me a lot. And the speed differences are great off of the heater.”

Laurila: People have pointed to how effective you’ve been with your approach angle and the fastball that goes along with it. They’ve also questioned whether you can continue having success in the big leagues with that as your strength. What are your thoughts on that?

Ryan: “I think it’s just a game-by-game basis, although using off-speed makes it a little bit easier to go deeper. That was a big usage thing in the minors. I was probably going five [innings] and there were a lot of games where it was like, ‘Hey, you’re coming out after 60 pitches,’ or something like that. So, it would be, ‘OK, I’m going to throw a lot of fastballs.’ Now… I mean, I can still throw a lot of fastballs — I know that I can do that — but I also have all these other weapons.”

Laurila: From everything you’ve said, it sounds like your approach to pitching is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but at the same time, let’s try to get better…

Ryan: “Exactly. I’m just trying to keep it simple and absorb as much information as I can. I mean, having guys here… [Chris] Paddack came over, and he’s got a ton of knowledge. He’s a great resource. What he’s learned from Joe Musgrove, from Yu Darvish, who I’m a huge fan of… I’m getting to learn from guys who have been around pitchers that I’ve looked up to.

“I love talking pitching. I love messing around with the baseball, manipulating it in the dugout, just getting that feel. Then I get back on the mound with all of that. It’s a good time.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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2 years ago

As a Twins fan, I love Joe Ryan. Really fun to watch, and it looks like they’re not going to try to change what makes him different, which makes me happy. His off-speed options are better than originally advertised, and his attitude of “how do I learn something from X to get better?” is a great way to improve. Looked great against Boston.