There’s so much to love about Joe Ryan. Minnesota Twins fans are well-versed in his quirks and affability. Followers of the “Joe Ryan Experience” namesake are familiar with the Grateful Dead-loving, mustache-sporting, bicycle-operating nature of the ascendant California-born pitcher. You may be familiar with his peculiar fastball, a slow-ish four-seamer that regularly disappears through bats high in the zone. Despite not being gifted with elite velocity, the pitch racks up whiffs and strikeouts in grandiosity. He gets 17.6% swinging strikes, and the MLB average is 9.6%.
For all of Ryan’s relative oddities and relaxed personality, he’s a hardworking trendsetter. MLB pitchers strive to have a profile resembling Ryan’s. He developed some of his positive unique characteristics as a high schooler and coming up through the minor leagues. However, he’s learned some only recently with help from the folks at Driveline Baseball. His release and arsenal perfectly represent what the analytics community wants from pitchers.
The current state of baseball has almost inundated viewers with the benefits of a high spin, “rising” fastball. No, it is not a requirement to be a successful pitcher, but hurlers with high velocity and high spin are more adept at getting whiffs. High spin comes with high velocity, so it can be discouraging for pitchers if they do not have natural arm strength.
Ryan has not only overcome that obstacle; he’s excelled with his 93 mph average. The reasoning is simple. Ryan throws with a low release height and a positive approach angle. Despite standing at 6’2” and atop a 10-inch mound, his fastball’s release height is a pinch under 5 feet. While other pitchers may be throwing purely down in the zone, Ryan is able to trick batters with the level that the ball travels toward their eyes.
With Ryan’s ball often being below the line of sight of the batter, throwing it high gives it the treasured “rising” feel. That is what vertical approach angle (VAA) is. A positive VAA means the ball is traveling up as it crosses the plate, and it’s effective at arriving safely in catcher’s mitts after staying above swing paths.
Ryan has said before that the nature of his release is not completely intentional. He simply developed a low release point and positive VAA as he saw results. Now aware of his own features, he’s sought out help to maximize them.
As a professional with an MLB contract, Ryan took a weeklong trip to Driveline Baseball to meet pitching director Chris Langin. Langin identified Ryan as a candidate for a sweeper. The pitch has spread in usage in two ways: pitchers adding it to their arsenals, and stat pages directly calling a pitcher’s slider a sweeper.
Langin advised Ryan to “spike” his index finger into the ball, pressing into it with his fingertip. One slight change to his slider grip coincided with an increase in horizontal movement. The logic behind using a sweeper is short. Data shows sweepers stockpile as many whiffs as sliders but with more weak popups and therefore lower batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The advantage of sweepers against same-sided batters (platoon advantage) is clear, but the benefit dissipates when facing opposite-sided batters.
Ryan still throws a classic slider as well as the sweeper. But in addition to revamping Ryan’s slider into a sweeper, Langin coaxed Ryan into replacing his changeup into a splitter. The grip for a splitter, or split-change if you like, has made some coaches and players apprehensive due to the perceived injury risk with throwing it.
The validity of that statement is not something I’ll discuss here, but I would like to mention that splitters reign supreme in the whole country of Japan with its Nippon Professional Baseball league. Nevertheless, Langin believed a splitter’s dramatic downward movement pairs well with Ryan’s high fastball approach.
Opponents still hit Ryan’s high fastballs pretty hard. Not only are fastballs generally hit hard, and therefore fastball-intensive pitchers will be hit harder just because of the math, but batters also hunt his fastball. Should they conquer his low release point and positive VAA (which they rarely do), they can generate hard contact easier than, say, a low breaking ball. Having an offspeed pitch with violent downward break would do wonders for his already elite swing-and-miss potential.
Already a unique figure, Joe Ryan’s fastball release and splitter make him even more so. By adding a sweeper, he’s fulfilled every requirement of being the perfect analytics pitcher. He may not possess otherworldly stuff and velocity. But with an engineered approach, he’s dominating the game in style.