Joe Ryan Is Who We Thought He Was

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins starting rotation isn’t what it was a season ago. In 2023, Minnesota’s starters had a 3.82 ERA, the best in the American League and second in the majors. Their 970 strikeouts were the best in baseball a season ago.

However, Minnesota’s rotation has taken a step back this season. The starting staff has a 4.28 rotation ERA, 21st in baseball. Their 290 strikeouts as a rotation may not be at the top, but it is top-6 in the league.

There are a few reasons for that. Pablo López has been inconsistent to start the season, Louie Varland regressed, and they lost Sonny Gray to free agency. Still, on a nightly basis, it feels like Minnesota’s rotation has put the team in a position to win games over the last month. Their starters posted a 3.69 ERA from the rotation since May 1, and Joe Ryan has been Minnesota’s most consistent pitcher this season.

Minnesota’s starters have been inconsistent, but Ryan has been effective every time he’s stepped on the mound in 2024. During his first 11 starts this season, Ryan has never allowed more than 4 runs in a start while pitching into the 6th inning each time. He leads Minnesota’s rotation with a 1.3 bWAR, 73 strikeouts, and 67 innings pitched while being second on the starting staff with a 2.96 ERA this year.

Ryan has plenty to prove in 2024. He’s been a fan favorite since Minnesota traded Nelson Cruz for him in 2021. After only five career starts, the Twins named him their Opening Day starter in 2022. Ryan pitched at an All-Star level through his first 15 starts by posting a 2.98 ERA, a 27.3 percent strikeout rate, and a .201 opponent batting average.

However, he suffered a groin injury in a start against the Atlanta Braves that disrupted his season. In his next 7 starts, he allowed 17 home runs over 32.1 innings for an 8.63 ERA before going on the IL. Ryan finished the season with a 4.51 ERA and was alright down the stretch with a 4.79 ERA and a 30.2 percent strikeout rate in his final 7 starts coming off of the IL. Still, it was nothing close to his dominance early in the schedule.

Ryan has this year to prove that the struggles from last year were an outlier. To quote the late, great Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, the Twins and the fanbase needed to see that Joe Ryan was who we thought he was. So far, he’s shown that his development trajectory is still on track. At the risk of crowning Ryan’s 2024 campaign, he’s gotten better every season. Ryan’s biggest progress this season has been his confidence up in the zone, his fastball velocity, and the development of his secondary pitches.

Ryan has attacked hitters in the strike zone, especially in the upper level. He has a career-high 55.7 zone percentage this year (the league average is 48.6 percent) and a 71 percent first-pitch strike percentage. Throwing that many pitches around the strike zone can be dangerous for a pitcher. However, Ryan gets away with throwing so many pitches over the plate because of his 3.4 percent walk rate.

That’s mainly due to how much Ryan relies on his fastball, which he throws 47 percent of the time. It’s not the 65.8 percent fastball rate he had in 2021, but it’s still an impactful pitch. Ryan is throwing his 4-seamer faster. He entered the league throwing 91.2 MPH on average, and now he’s up to a 93.8 MPH average fastball. He topped out at 96 in his last start against the Kansas City Royals. In 2024, opposing hitters have a .184 batting average against the 4-seamer, and his 33.3 strikeout percentage and his 21.4 percent put-away percentage using his heater are the highest out of his repertoire.

Ryan owes his career to his productive fastball. Still, good starting pitchers typically need at least three pitches they can rely on to avoid being too predictable for opposing hitters. 2023 was the year of the sweeper, and Ryan induced a 36.5 strikeout rate with that pitch. In 2024, Ryan has been effective with the splitter. It’s his second-most thrown pitch at 25.2 percent and has a second-best +4 run value score. Opposing hitters have a .174 batting average against Ryan’s splitter, the best from any of his pitches in 2024.

Ryan’s success in 2024 is important because López hasn’t pitched like an ace to start the season. López has occasionally looked like Minnesota’s best pitcher. However, his 5.25 ERA through 11 starts this year means someone needs to fill the production void that staff ace needs to bring to a playoff-caliber team. Ryan’s 132 ERA+ ranks 16th best in the American League, while his 73 strikeouts are fourth-best in the junior circuit.

Ryan is also filling Gray’s void after he left to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals in free agency. Nobody expected a Twins starter in 2024 to match Gray’s 2.79 ERA, 152 ERA+, or 5.4 bWAR from 2023 – not even Gray will hit those numbers this season. However, someone needed to get close to making up most of that difference. Once López turns his fortunes around, a López-Ryan tandem at the top of the rotation would give Minnesota a similar advantage it had a season ago with López and Gray.

The 2024 season is a sneaky important one for Joe Ryan. He’s already proven to be a capable big-league starter. However, the team and the fans needed to see if he was closer to a top or middle-of-the-rotation starter. Ryan has shown he can be a top-of-the-rotation starter this season and fill the gap for the team. It’s always been there in flashes. But now Ryan is in position again to show everyone in Twins Territory that he is who we thought he was.

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