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The unlikely rise of Ryne Harper

As a wise man once said, “real men have curves”

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Minnesota Twins Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Remember on February 9th, when you read on your favorite Twins website (this one) that Ryne Harper would be invited to Spring Training in a non-roster role? Of course you don’t, and neither does anyone else. The Twins actually signed Harper before the 2018 season and he spent the entirety of that season in the minor leagues (39 innings at AA, 26 at AAA). He was a fairly solid relief pitcher the whole way through the season, posting a 3.60 ERA, 1.092 WHIP, 1.4 BB/9 and an 11.9 K/9. Perhaps he deserved a September call up opportunity but that would have taken away innings from Twins legend Matt Belisle.

You have probably caught yourself wondering where this Ryne Harper guy came from and why his name is spelled Ryne instead of Ryan. Unfortunately I only have the answer to one of those questions. Harper was a 37th round draft pick by the Atlanta Braves in 2011. He has always had an ERA better than 3.60 in the minors but he was just never given a chance in the majors. During the 2017 offseason the Braves traded him to the Mariners for a PTBNL and that was when Harper was finally called up to the big leagues! Sadly he was up for three games but never made an appearance before being sent back down. Eventually the Twins were able to grab him before the 2018 season began and it is looking like a great move so far.

Coming into 2019 Spring Training as a non-roster invitee it wasn’t thought or even really considered he would be on a playoff hopeful team to start the season, but wow he certainly surprised us all. Over the course of 11.0 spring innings he gave up 0 earned runs to go with a 0.636 WHIP. At 30 years old he was finally able to make his first ever MLB appearance and he is clearly making the most of it.

The most interesting and obvious thing about Ryne Harper is his pitch arsenal. Among all qualified relief pitchers in baseball, Harper throws the most curveballs at a 56.5% clip. To counter the curve he has a deceptive fastball that he throws 42% of the time. The reason I call it deceptive is because of how well it compliments his curveball.

Here is a Statcast 3D representation of his curveball (blue) next to his fastball (Red)

If you look closely it would appear the release point is nearly the same for the curve and the fastball. For a guy like Harper, whose fastball is averaging 89 MPH, to have success he has to have it looking like the curveball out of the hand. There is a reason opposing hitters are only hitting .200 against it with it also having one of the worst spin rates in baseball. When Harper can get hitters looking for the curveball he can toss the fastball and make them look silly.

Here is a good example of that from this spring. He diced two hitters with his curve and when the third hitter thought he had figured it out, the fastball just never dropped.

Alright but enough with the fastball, right? Let’s talk about his signature pitch which is obviously the curveball. As I said earlier, Harper ranks first in all of baseball with 56% of his pitches being curveballs. Well how do hitters not just hit it if they know its coming every time? The key to his curveball success has been his ability to change speeds with it. It ranges from as low as 68 MPH all the way up to about 76 MPH. An eight MPH speed difference with a breaking ball is significant in getting him to see more success.

I was able to find two examples of him throwing his curveball. The top gif is the 68 MPH pitch that will cross up any hitter if the pitcher can mix it in well. It seems like Astudillo was looking for the ball down and in but this curve can beat anyone with its effective wildness at times. The bottom example is the 75 MPH curve. There is noticeably less break on this one but the bump in speed to go with the drop make it another tough pitch to hit.

The curve, or curves are good. He has many different types of them to keep the hitter off balance and then when the hitter finally knows what to do Harper will just toss a fastball by him.

While I have talked about his pitches and how great they are I have yet to prove it by telling you his stats so far. They definitely back up what I have been saying. Ryne Harper currently holds a 1.77 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 0.89 WHIP, and a 4.25 K/BB. His batted ball stats against are also great with just a .187 AVG, .485 OPS and a BABIP of .228 so he is not getting beat when the ball is in play. For Statcast stats, he is allowing an 87.6 MPH average exit velocity, 1.7 barrel%, 34.5 hard hit% and a 16.2 degrees launch angle. The stats back up the pitches he has been throwing.

For 30 year old Ryne Harper, getting this chance to pitch for a contending Twins team has to be great for him. He has quietly developed into a top 3-4 bullpen arm for the team and will hopefully be able to hold his place in that spot. Who needs Craig Kimbrel, right?

2018 Craig Kimbrel: 4.48 BB/9, 28.2 GB%, 2.74 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 0.99 WHIP

2019 Ryne Harper: 1.77 BB/9, 37.9 GB%, 1.77 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 0.89 WHIP