How Much Of Joe Ryan's Home Run Struggles Were Due To Regression?

Photo Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins had one of the best starting rotations in baseball in the first half of the 2023 season. Their starting pitchers’ 3.64 ERA was second in baseball and led the league with 517 innings pitched at the All-Star Break. It wasn’t just a single pitching performance in the first half that put the Twins over the top; it was a top-to-bottom complete rotation.

Pablo López and Sonny Gray headlined that unit and were rewarded with trips to the All-Star Game. But there could have been just as good of a case to also put Joe Ryan on that list, especially after a complete-game shutout against the Boston Red Sox on June 22. From Opening Day to that start, Ryan had a 9.61 K/9, a .201 opponent average, and a 2.98 ERA in 15 starts over 93.2 innings while only allowing eight home runs in that span.

Then things went sideways for Ryan from late June to early August. He allowed an 8.63 ERA over 32.1 innings over those seven starts. The main culprit was the whopping 17 home runs he allowed in the time. A groin injury he admitted he hid was the reason for Ryan’s struggles dating back to a bad start in Atlanta. Ryan’s ERA spike seemed to coincide with the injury. So after some on the injured list, the big question for the Twins was how much of Ryan’s struggles were due to the groin injury or regression?

If his first two starts since returning from the injured list are any indication, Ryan is returning to form. In his two starts since coming back from the IL, Ryan has tossed a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings while holding opponents to two home runs. Most importantly, he guided the Twins to wins in each of those starts. Ryan’s current return to form is crucial because it’s a time when the Twins desperately need him to be his best self.

Two starts seem like a small sample size, especially considering that both were against the struggling Texas Rangers. The big question will be if he can continue this through the rest of the season. Ryan is in a good spot based on his underlying numbers over those last two starts.

It’s been a career year already for Ryan. He’s already racked up 161 strikeouts this season, but 14 of them came over his last two starts. Another positive has been that Ryan has not allowed too many baserunners since his return. A 0.91 WHIP, a .211 opponent average, and only two walks in his last two starts are more in line with his early season numbers.

If we want to nitpick, the home runs still could be an issue. Ryan has allowed a high number of home runs in his career. In 2022, he was 20th in baseball with 20 home runs allowed. How impactful Ryan can be coming off the injury could ride on how much he can keep the ball in the yard. Over his last two starts, he has a 18.2 percent home run/fly ball rate compared to a 14.8 percent rate for the 2023 season. Ryan has done a good job of that this season before his injury. However, time will tell if that increases.

López and Gray are continuing to pitch at or around the high levels they were producing at early in the season. Since the All-Star Break, Lopez (3.35 ERA) and Gray (2.98 ERA) have shown no signs of slowing down. The front part of the rotation is firm, but the back end is concerning.

The Twins put Dallas Keuchel, 35, into the rotation to fill Ryan’s spot, and he has been up and down with a 5.06 ERA over 21.1 innings pitched. Bailey Ober and Kenta Maeda have been solid this season. However, they have waned in the late weeks of the season. Minnesota sent Ober down to Triple-A last week, where he’s rested and missed starts. Maeda had a solid run beginning in late July. However, he has looked shaky in his last four starts by allowing 15 runs over 18 innings in that span.

What makes a potential Ryan resurgence so important is not just a September push but also for the postseason, should the Twins hang on and win the AL Central. The Wild Card is a three-game series. López and Gray are locked into two of those spots, so Ryan has an opportunity to take that final spot in the playoff rotation. Ober and Maeda could have filled those spots. However, Ober is currently in Triple-A, and Maeda’s experience as a high-leverage postseason reliever makes it easy for manager Rocco Baldelli to pencil in Ryan for a playoff start.

It may seem like a champagne problem, but it’s crucial that the team has three starters that they trust. A lack of pitching depth has plagued the Twins, especially in their postseason teams over the last two decades. Randy Dobnak started a playoff game at Yankee Stadium as a rookie, and Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing started postseason games in the Ron Gardenhire era. Having three legit starting pitchers means Minnesota can use any combination of the trio against a potential first-round playoff opponent. That’s especially true if they end up in a winner-take-all situation in the ALWC series.

Joe Ryan is one of Minnesota’s most important young arms in the organization since joining the organization in 2021. This season appeared to be his breakout year before the injury. Now that Ryan appears to be pitching at a high level again, Minnesota’s rotation can again be considered one of the league’s strongest in the final month of the season and potentially a playoff series. If the Twins are going to close out the AL Central in the final weeks of the season, Ryan will need to pitch like he did in the first half of the season.

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