Joe Ryan Must Continue To Flesh Out His Arsenal

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Ryan has one of the best four-seamers in the MLB. Although he doesn’t blow by batters with velocity, his low arm slot, release, and an alright amount of backspin make it one of the flattest in the league.

The pitch’s 16.8% swinging strike rate was sixth-best among starters last season, just behind Pablo López’s 17.1%. He gave up plenty of home runs on the pitch last season, but he has generally avoided allowing hard or ideal contact on the pitch.

It’s the building block that all pitchers desperately seek.

Four-seamers like Ryan’s put a lot of stress on batters. They have to direct their attention up, which opens the door for Ryan to go low. Great north-south pitchers can tunnel pitches off their elevated four-seamers or attack beneath the zone when batters struggle to adjust their vision and bats. But Ryan hasn’t mastered this yet.

He’s working with Driveline Baseball this offseason, just as he did last offseason, to flesh out his arsenal. With Driveline’s help, he “added” a sweeper and a split-changeup. However, those pitches didn’t achieve the desired results last year.

Batters regularly made contact with his splitter, even when they chased. Most pitchers locate their splitters below the zone, making it a prime whiff pitch. However, they are a tad inconsistent because they usually don’t land for called strikes when batters lay off them.

Ryan threw his splitter in the zone 42.1% of the time last year (94th percentile among starters). Most importantly, he floated too many up in the zone, which most MLB batters can crush. But he had success when he located the pitch down.

Below is a graph showing the stark difference in splitter effectiveness:

Ryan’s splitter was often too hittable, but his sweeper and slider weren’t hittable enough. 20.2% of the sweepers he threw were considered waste pitches, while only 32.2% were in the zone. As a result, batters only swung at his sliders 42.7% of the time (16th percentile). In other words, batters ignored Ryan’s sliders.

There could be several reasons to explain the splitter and slider’s poor performance. If Ryan could locate each pitch better, splitters beneath the zone, and sliders closer to the zone, maybe it would fix his issues. It’s also possible that he needs new pitches.

Ryan’s dominance up in the zone makes it difficult for batters to adjust to pitches low in the zone, but batters may be able to identify pitch type based on their location alone.

If it looks like Ryan is throwing the pitch low in the zone, the hitter knows that pitch is likely a splitter. If the batter is familiar with the movement of Ryan’s splitter, he has an easier time making a swing decision. He could let the pitch fall for a ball or have an easier time tracking it and making contact. The latter seems especially true, as evidenced by Ryan’s 70.8% chase-contact rate (O-Con%, 9th percentile).

However it happened, batters had no issues making contact with Ryan’s splitter, even if it was out of the zone.

Something similar could be true for Ryan’s sweeper. If he starts the pitch too far outside, batters may recognize the pitch as a sweeper early and be able to lay off, which could explain Ryan’s low swing rate on his sliders.

If this is the case, A sinker and/or a cutter could help Ryan. He could also consider bringing back his old curveball from 2021-22, but adding a sinker and cutter would be especially important.

Ryan may not even need to add a sinker and cutter. He could mix up his four-seamer usage. Flat four-seamers perform the best up in the zone but can work anywhere.

He could keep batters off-balance by throwing a few more of them low in the zone. There he could get called strikes as batters anticipate the pitch being a splitter. Ryan also could throw more backdoor four-seamers that may or may not look like sweepers, only that they don’t sweep out of the zone.

A sinker works in both scenarios. To better set up his sweeper, he could attack the outside of the zone with a sinker that starts off the plate. Should it bend in for a called strike, he could attack with a sweeper that starts in the same spot before the batter (hopefully) chases, thinking it’s another sinker.

Adding a cutter could have a similar effect. Ryan could throw a cutter like a hard slider down and away. Then he could follow it up with a sweeper, hoping the batter thinks it’s a cutter.

By reincorporating his curveball, Ryan may also help complement his four-seamer. Many north-south pitchers like Ryan throw curveballs because they start with the same trajectory up in the zone, making them look like four-seamers.

Ryan’s low arm slot makes curveballs harder to throw, or at least harder to achieve the desired drop. It’s the same reason he and Driveline identified a sweeper, an offering pitchers can easily throw from a lower arm slot, as a pitch to add.

Ryan is not far away from being one of the best starters in the MLB. He could be one offseason away from fully unlocking his potential. We don’t know whether or not that offseason includes new pitches. His current four-seamer/splitter/sweeper mix should work well with improved command. If he cuts down on floated splitters and waste sweepers, he could dominate immediately next year.

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