Ryan makes it with mostly just his 92-96 mph 4-seam FASTBALL, elevating it high in the strike zone. Joe throws it with incredible backspin forged by years as a high school volleyball player and is nearly unhittable when located up in the zone, garnering a 65 grade. He has a SLIDER he added in 2019, and it gets a 50 grade while generating strikeouts.
He also has a CUTTER. He has a power CURVEBALL that is a below-average 40 grade. And he has refined his 83-84 mph CHANGEUP. It now tunnels well with his fastball.
Joe hides the ball well in his delivery. He has above-average 55 grade for Control.
Ryan has always been a fastball-dominant pitcher. He used that pitch to power through the minors. While evaluators wanted to see him take strides with his secondaries, he continued to pitch overwhelmingly off his fastball (65.8%) with the Twins and continued to find success with it. The pitch has below-average velocity (91.2 mph) and spin, but a low slot and impressive carry up in the zone has allowed it to perplex and stymie hitters, nonetheless. Scouts did like the improvement of Ryan’s slider, which he used 16% of the time in his brief MLB debut. The pitch comes in around 80 mph, and he generated whiffs with it 35.3% of the time. After that, Ryan also occasionally threw an 83-mph changeup and slow curveball. (Carlos Collazo - Baseball America Prospect Handbook - Spring, 2022)
Ryan believes that learning to finish his throws in water polo helped develop his bread-and-butter pitch: a swing-and-miss four-seam fastball that’s played tremendously well at the top of the zone. The pitch has good velo but not eye-popping compared to his peers. But the pitch’s movement characteristic is its apparent “hop,” similar to one of his pitching idols, Matt Cain. The hop and his location make it more effective than the pure velocity would suggest.
In 2019, he led the Minors in strikeout rate, fanning 183 batters in 123.2 innings. The challenge now for Ryan is refining his secondary stuff, because he dominated almost exclusively with his fastball and may need more weapons to combat higher-level hitters. Ryan also throws a slider, his primary breaking ball, along with a loopy curveball and an occasional changeup that aren’t quite there yet.
Ryan has a starter’s delivery and a three-quarters arm slot that creates deception. Combine that with his above-average command and the life on his fastball, and you can understand why hitters have struggled to do much damage against him. Ryan is an intelligent pitcher who has watched and learned while working alongside Harvard-Westlake School products Lucas Giolito and Max Fried. If it all comes together, Ryan has all the makings of a mid-rotation big league starter, and he could help the Twins sooner than later. (Spring 2021)
Ryan’s calling card is a plus, swing-and-miss fastball that he relies on heavily. His innate feel for challenging hitters up in the zone with the pitch fuels his bat-missing ability, and he finished first in the Minors (120 IP min.) in strikeout rate (38 percent) and strikeouts-per-nine (13.3).
Ryan has a bevy of secondary pitches at his disposal, but he spent much of his first full season tinkering with different breaking ball grips. His above-average slider is his go-to pitch, and he also shows feel for a cutter that has distinct slicing action. He rounds out his arsenal with a slow, loopy curveball and a changeup that’s below average.
A former water polo player, Ryan’s clean, loose arm action and three-quarters slot give him natural deception which, on top of the pure stuff, makes him difficult to square up. Both his control and command are above average, especially with regards to his fastball, and scouts universally agree that the right-hander should unlock more potential as he refines his arsenal. He has all the ingredients needed to be a Major League starter, perhaps even a No. 3, and could continue to move quickly in 2020. (Spring 2020)
While many pitchers have simplified their deliveries and even junked pitching from a windup, Joe begins with an old-school windup, bringing his arms high above and behind his head. then usually deals an elevated 92-96 mph. He commands the pitch so well that hitters can’t seem to touch it. Ryan’s 2,250-rpm spin rate is merely average, but he hides the ball well and gets good extension.
Joe meshes a power pitcher’s mindset with impressive command. (Spring, 2020)
Joe learned his cutter with help from reliever Hunter Wood (who was later traded to the Indians) and Brent Honeywell. Ryan learned it when he moved from low Class A Bowling Green to high Class A Charlotte, and has quickly taken to the pitch.
Wood was starting a rehab assignment at Port Charlotte and asked Ryan to be his throwing partner.
"We were just playing regular catch, and towards the end of catch we always throw our off-speed stuff and flip a couple up there,’’ Wood said. "He threw me a couple sliders, and told me he’d been working on it because he was just fastball dominant.
"I threw him my cutter a couple times, and he seemed to really like it. So I showed him how I was holding it (like an off-center four-seam fastball) and what I was doing with it. I let him throw it to me a couple times, and it was filthy. I was like, 'I think you’ve got something here if you keep working on it.' "
Ryan was doing pretty well already, and the cutter gave him another weapon in a repertoire topped by a 91-95 mph fastball he torments hitters with given the deception from his three-quarters arm slot, plus a curveball and a changeup.
The version he throws mostly is a low-90s offering that darted away from barrels of righthanded hitters and dug in on the hands of lefties while staying on roughly the same plane as his four-seamer. Also, the cutter can morph into a SLIDER.
Before the cutter and slider, Ryan changed the grip on his curveball. By moving off of his spike grip, he upped the pitch’s velocity and sharpened its break. Instead of a loopy pitch in the mid-60s, Ryan now has a mid-70s version that he can use early in the count to steal strikes or bury to finish off a hitter used to seeing a steady diet of heaters. (Marc Topkin - Baseball America - Sept., 2019)
Joe believes part of the reason his fastball plays the way it does is because of the years he spent playing water polo. So he gets a 2,250-rph spin rate, which is merely average, but he hides the ball well and gets good extension. He credits his time skipping the ball in water polo for helping him get so much backspin on his fastball.
“I played water polo for a long time growing up, and learning how to really finish my throws from that (helped),” he explained. “In order to skip a water polo ball, you have to create some good backspin and really stay on the ball for a long time and finish your throw, so I think that helps me get that late life on the ball that we see a lot on the baseball field now.”
Ryan has the arsenal of a power pitcher, but he couples it with impeccable command. He is one of just five pitchers in the minors who have struck out 125 or more hitters while walking 25 or fewer. He’s achieved this not only by throwing a ton of strikes, but by throwing a ton of pitches that stay in the strike zone until the last moment.
“That’s part of his success, is you can’t see a pitch as a ball early. By the time you’ve recognized that it’s a ball, you’ve already committed to your swing because he has so much life and he can command pitches, which is a word that I don’t use very often at this level, but he commands pitches in the zone as well as out of the zone,” Watson said. “He throws pitches out of the zone where he wants to throw the ball, which is extremely rare.” (Josh Norris - Baseball America - August 2, 2019)
2019 Season: Joe Ryan, pitching prospect of the year: The 2018 seventh-round pick from Division II Cal State Stanislaus had a remarkable breakout campaign, climbing three levels up to Double-A Montgomery. The 23-year-old righty finished among the Minor League leaders (100 IP min.) with a 1.96 ERA (fifth), 0.84 WHIP (second) and 183 strikeouts (second) in 123 2/3 innings.
Ryan also ranked among the best with a 32.4 percent strike-to-walk rate (first), a 38 percent strikeout rate (second) and a .172 BAA (seventh).
Ryan's fastball: Hard to explain, harder to hit
Baseball was one of the focal points of Joe Ryan's athletic life as he grew up in Marin County, in wine country across the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco. But baseball wasn’t everything. Considering his father was a distance runner, there was a lot of running in his life, to be sure. Water polo was also a heavy influence through high school, and really, he was just around the water a lot, with swimming, lifeguarding, surfing and fishing all playing formative roles in his upbringing. "I was just always doing stuff,” Ryan said. “I’d play water polo and come home from practice. And if [the sun was still] out, we'd play catch in the street and just throw, or we'd throw a flat-ground or something in our driveway.”
But he still does remember showing up to a baseball camp in third grade with his buddies. They were maybe 10 years old. And he threw one of the hardest fastballs, he claims, at 64 mph. That heater has since been the driving force of his athletic life coalescing around baseball, and that pitch once again played the most prominent role, front and center, as he tore through MLB competition in his first four starts while throwing the fastball for 66.7 percent of his pitches. That pitch has helped Ryan become the second pitcher in AL/NL history (since at least 1901) to pitch at least five innings and allow no more than three hits in each of his first four big league games.
Even as it has generated 14 of his 25 strikeouts, that fastball is, by no means, an overpowering pitch compared to his peers anymore, considering it has averaged 91.2 mph through four starts. It’s not even that it’s a particularly high-spin pitch, or that it has a crazy amount of carry. It just works. It always has. That’s why he dominated the Minors relying heavily on it and why he threw it 70.8 percent of the time in his big league debut on Sept. 1 against the Cubs, and 61.2 percent of the time when he carried a perfect game into the seventh against Cleveland in his second start. You’d think he would have all the details of why it’s worked so well for him throughout his life, considering how important it’s been to his career. And that he came up in the extremely analytical Rays system before he arrived in the July 22 trade that sent Nelson Cruz to Tampa Bay. “I don't know,” Ryan admits. “I was always thinking about, like, throwing through the target. And maybe that helped me stay on it longer and help something along the way.”
As to why it works so well, many point to Ryan’s release at a strikingly low, three-quarters arm angle that might actually mess with hitters’ expectations, pitching coach Wes Johnson said. Among right-handers with four-seam fastballs in 2021, Ryan has an average release height that is the 24th lowest out of 555 big leaguers tracked by Statcast. And none of them throws the four-seamer as often as he does. With a strikingly low, three-quarters arm angle, Joe Ryan also seems to hide the ball well from hitters.
“One of the things we’ve found through science is hitters anticipate an arm slot or hand movement,” Johnson said. “If a guy throws sidearm, they anticipate arm-side run and sink. Any time they see that slot that’s lower, innately, they’re going to anticipate some sink and run. … His actually doesn’t.”
Ryan also seems to hide the ball very well, something that’s been pointed out by teammates and opponents alike in the short time he has been in the big leagues.
“There's a lot of guys swinging through the fastball,” Cubs manager David Ross said following Ryan’s debut. “It looks like 96 and it's coming out 91-92. Just got one of those fastballs that hitters don't see, whether it's the carry or [the fact that] he hides it well.”So, if that’s a big part of what helps Ryan’s fastball work so well, why not just have more guys hide the ball and throw with carry from a lower arm angle?
“It’s really hard to teach a guy to do some things if their body is not going to allow them to,” Johnson said. Ryan knows that his body is capable of it because it’s how he’s always thrown, influenced by the natural throwing motion he repeated as a high school water polo player for years, but also by those days when he'd come home from water polo practice or some other outdoor activity before he'd play catch.
Ryan figures that his body naturally found ways to compensate from its already fatigued state with a more fluid motion. And that led to this easy, natural motion from the angle that his body dictated to him.
"You're breeding that fluidity, especially when you're tired," Ryan said. "It's not like I'm going all-out trying to throw hard. It's just like, 'Hey, this is what happens.'"
It so happens that Ryan's natural arm slot helps his stuff play up on the field, which is an advantage for him over someone like Bailey Ober, who used to throw more over-the-top but who worked with the Twins to lower his arm angle to better suit his pitches. It's also an advantage in that Johnson is of the belief that Ryan's having developed that arm angle by listening to his body could bode well for the young right-hander's future arm health.
“Any time you can get somebody in their natural arm slot, they have a chance to stay healthier a little longer, [though] I don’t know if we’ve got enough data yet to make that statement objectively,” Johnson said. “Any time you don’t have to create that and they've been doing it for a long time, those muscles, those tendons, those ligaments, they’re used to working in that slot, so they know how to react and recover.”
That's significant because the Twins will figure to rely heavily on Ryan in their 2022 rotation and beyond, and though the next step of Ryan's progress and development will rely on his improving off-speed stuff, it all starts with that fastball. It always has. (Do-Hyoung Park - Sept. 27, 2021)
- 2021 Season: Acquired in exchange for Nelson Cruz, Ryan wound up being among the best things to happen for the Twins last season. After pitching for Team USA, Ryan made five starts at the big league level. His 3.43 FIP was better than the 4.05 ERA, but a 30/5 K/BB is beyond impressive for a guy who doesn’t have dominant velocity. How Ryan adapts to more tape on him in year two is going to be intriguing.
The Twins Joe Ryan Talks Sliders, Vertical Approach Angle… and Water Polo
David Laurila: The majority of FanGraphs readers are familiar with your pitching profile. That said, how would you describe it?
Joe Ryan: “I’m not sure. I don’t think about it too big-picture, or try to analyze myself in that way. Simplistically, I’m a strike-thrower that fills up the zone, tries to hit my spots, and pitches to my strengths. I’m also always trying to develop new pitches and make everything else better, and more consistent. I’m not trying to overhaul, but rather I tinker a lot. Maybe not a lot, but I am always wanting a little more.”
. Can you say a little on that?
Laurila: I brought up your slider before we started talking on the record
Ryan: “The slider is better than it has been. Getting comfortable with the grip, working with [Chris] Archer to make some other cues… before, I was trying to spin it a little too much. Now I’m just maintaining arm speed, holding it, and getting out front. It’s coming out harder, too. I think staying through it longer with my hand got me that velocity, and the action I was looking for.”
Laurila: Can you elaborate on “trying to spin it a little too much”?
Ryan: “I was trying to create movement on the backside instead of letting everything happen out front. Basically, I was trying to spin it too early. I was trying to spin a curveball by my ear, to create arc, instead of letting my hand work through its natural arm path to create spin out front.”
Laurila: But you are trying to spin the ball, manipulate the ball…
Ryan: “Yes. It’s finger pressure on the grip, and then just finishing it that way. But I’m not really trying to manipulate my wrist, or turn anything. Mentally, I think index finger. Your middle finger is going to be the last finger to come off — the middle finger is still going to be dominant — but index finger pressure as the mental cue helps me to stay on it a little longer. Just emphasizing the middle finger pressure, which I do on my curveball… it’s a little bit slower and is going release a little bit earlier.”
Laurila: How similar is your slider to Archer’s?
Ryan: “I haven’t looked at the data. But it also depends a lot on the arm slot, right? For me, it’s going to be the lower arm slot. I don’t know how accurate our TrackMan is, but I’ve been getting pitches in the 4.4 range — release height — to 4.10, which is pretty low. So, it’s finding how that pitch is going to work, how that shape is going to build. Arch has a little higher arm slot, so we’re going to have different pitch characteristics.”
Laurila: When people have written about your approach angle, they’ve generally done so in regard to your fastball. How does it impact your breaking ball?
Ryan: “It was a struggle for me to find that at the beginning, to find a traditional slider. How I was trying to think about it was a little bit different than my arm path. As I got my arm path figured out, it was like, ‘OK, this is where my slot is, this is where my hand is, this is where it’s comfortable, so let me find a grip, and then find the adjustments I need.’
“It helps me to watch other pitchers. Pedro [Martinez]. I think watching Aaron Nola helps me, because he had that whippy arm out front. Everything was happening out there. So, not necessarily taking what he was doing pitch-wise, but just his mechanics, how he was staying long and whipping everything out front. That helps me mentally. OK, I can stay out front and whip through that with my hand.’”
Laurila: What is the movement profile on your slider?
.5. That would be good for me. Between three and seven horizontal. Not crazy. I think coming from the low slot helps a lot. I think more cutter with it [as opposed to] creating a slider.”
Ryan: “Sometimes it’s a -0
Laurila: Have you always thrown the exact same way?
Ryan: “I looked at some photos from high school, from when I was a junior — maybe a sophomore — and I was a little more angled over the top. My arm slot was the same. I think I just got my shoulders more level, and comfortable, and then my hand was in the same… I think my shoulder slot has always been the same position, but I was tilted over a little bit more. It was more of a trunk tilt, as opposed to changing my actual slot.
“I used to try to throw like Tim Lincecum a little bit when I was younger. That was probably in middle school into my freshman year of high school. I was a Giants fan, and he was a beast. But the shoulder — the slot for the shoulder — has always felt pretty similar. I think it’s just keeping my head a little bit more still and staying on line longer, which gets me out front. I think that comes from water polo, too.”
Laurila: Water polo?
Ryan: “I played from sixth grade through my senior year of high school. You’re skipping the ball and rotating through the water with mostly your trunk. You’ve got to get extension to skip the ball. You can’t just throw down, from right in front of you, or it’s just going to stop in the water. So, I’m trying to throw out, and get extension, and create that spin. It’s like a late hand speed to create that.”
Laurila: What is the spin efficiency on your fastball?
Ryan: “It’s usually 100% efficiency. That’s always been there. It’s been 98-100% in every bullpen, ever. If I try to throw a bad one, it’s still 98-100.”
Laurila: Is the curveball an important pitch for you?
Ryan: “It’s very important. I think it’s how I shot up through the minors. It taught me how to throw an off-speed pitch a little bit more consistently, the effectiveness of changing speeds. And then also how it plays off my fastball with the 12-6. It’s maybe a little bit more lateral than a 12-6, but having a straight up-and-down pitch helps me a lot. And the speed differences are great off of the heater.”
Laurila: People have pointed to how effective you’ve been with your approach angle and the fastball that goes along with it. They’ve also questioned whether you can continue having success in the big leagues with that as your strength. What are your thoughts on that?
Ryan: “I think it’s just a game-by-game basis, although using off-speed makes it a little bit easier to go deeper. That was a big usage thing in the minors. I was probably going five [innings] and there were a lot of games where it was like, ‘Hey, you’re coming out after 60 pitches,’ or something like that. So, it would be, ‘OK, I’m going to throw a lot of fastballs.’ Now… I mean, I can still throw a lot of fastballs — I know that I can do that — but I also have all these other weapons.”
Laurila: From everything you’ve said, it sounds like your approach to pitching is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but at the same time, let’s try to get better…
Ryan: “Exactly. I’m just trying to keep it simple and absorb as much information as I can. I mean, having guys here… [Chris] Paddack came over, and he’s got a ton of knowledge. He’s a great resource. What he’s learned from Joe Musgrove, from Yu Darvish, who I’m a huge fan of… I’m getting to learn from guys who have been around pitchers that I’ve looked up to.
“I love talking pitching. I love messing around with the baseball, manipulating it in the dugout, just getting that feel. Then I get back on the mound with all of that. It’s a good time.” (April 21, 2022)