Joe Ryan’s Secret To Success Is Simple Yet Effective

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Rocco Baldelli was on Kevin Cash’s staff with the Tampa Bay Rays before taking the Minnesota Twins job, and he still occasionally talks to Cash. However, he can’t remember if they discussed Joe Ryan after the Twins traded for him at the 2021 trade deadline.

Cash doesn’t spend much time thinking about players who aren’t on the major league roster, but Ryan’s scouting report wasn’t that complicated. The Twins traded 41-year-old Nelson Cruz to Tampa for Ryan, a seventh-round pick out of Cal State Stanislaus who threw 60 percent fastballs.

Still, Ryan had 75 strikeouts in 57 innings at Triple-A before joining Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics. “The Rays have had a strong track record of developing pitching. We know that,” Derek Falvey said after making the trade. “I think that’s a calling card of that organization, so to get someone like him who’s developed through their group I’m sure will be a great add for us.”

That feels like an understatement now. Cruz hit .226/.283/.443 with 13 homers for the Rays, and the Boston Red Sox upset them in the ALDS. Ryan made five starts in 2021 and was Minnesota’s opening-day starter in 2022. He owns a 3.89 ERA (105 ERA+) in four seasons with the Twins and has become one of their better pitchers.

Ryan ditched his curveball and changeup this season, replacing them with a sweeper and splitter. After a Driveline visit last summer, he also throws a gyro slider that he throws harder with less movement. Ryan’s tinkering paid off. He owns a 3.24 ERA (121 ERA+) in five starts this season.

“Joe’s been a guy that’s been willing to make changes in what he’s doing,” said Rocco Baldelli. “He’s not afraid to adapt and try something new for fear that it might not work or for fear that it might take him in the wrong direction. He’s been really good about that. And I think a lot of what, a lot of the good, he has really good things, components, general things, he throws strikes, [Ryan] can just take a baseball and throw it where he wants to throw it better than 95% of the pitchers in the big leagues.”

Command is Ryan’s foundation. It allows him to frequently throw fastballs up in the zone, where the pitch appears to be moving faster than it is, and have his off-speed pitches play off that. A pitcher with lesser command would risk missing and throwing a non-competitive pitch high or a meatball down the middle. However, Ryan can move hitters’ eye level by throwing pitches up and down the strike zone that move their eye level.

“When you start there (with command), that he just has that ability, he can change his delivery, [Ryan] can do whatever he wants, he can put the ball where he wants it better than other people, it’s a great place to start,” said Baldelli. “Once you have that, you can do it with different types of pitches, you can figure different things out, [and] he has that reliability and repeatability just naturally. So a lot of these things that he does well are leading to the improvements that he’s made.”

Ryan uses more of a sinker grip on his fastball this year, which gives it downward movement. Good hitters can hit high-velocity fastballs when the pitcher throws them straight. However, they are harder to pick up when they have rotation, which is why many pitching development services like Driveline use Trackman technology to determine how often a pitch rotates and how far it moves. Ryan has also increased his velocity from 90 mph to around 95 mph, making it harder to hit and allowing his off-speed stuff to play off it better.

“There are some guys, they add three ticks to their fastball, maybe two ticks to their fastball, they’re going to be better as long as the command stays the same,” said Baldelli. “They’re likely going to be better pitchers, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to be significantly better.

“What Joe’s been doing this year has been just phenomenal. And what it’s done to his off-speed pitches, the shapes of those pitches, he’s really benefiting from it, and you can see it in the hitters and the at-bats that we watch every time he takes them out.”

With Pablo López off to a slow start (5.63 ERA, 70 ERA+) and after losing Sonny Gray in free agency, Ryan’s performance at the top of the rotation has been vital to the Twins. He’s evolved from a fastball-heavy pitcher who sat 89 to 91 mph to a more dynamic pitcher who throws harder. At 28, he’s in the middle of his prime and doesn’t become a free agent until 2028. That’s the benefit of identifying and trading for an overlooked player in the Rays farm system.

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