Joe Ryan has been a popular subject on these pages. Zach compared Ryan’s solid rookie campaign (3.55 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 25.0 K%, 7.8 BB%, over 147.0 Innings) up against other successful rookie seasons in franchise history. Jon Gamble pointed out that Ryan broke Francisco Liriano’s 2006 record for strikeouts in a rookie campaign in one of his searches for silver linings in the wreckage of last season.
Coming into the season, perhaps the most significant question mark regarding the rookie Opening Day starter was how his fastball-centric approach, despite its mediocre traditional characteristics, would hold up over an entire major league season. Did Ryan have, and would he deploy, the necessary quality secondary offerings that we expect of starting pitchers?
After four excellent April starts (1.17 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 23 Innings), the answer appeared to be “yes”. Ryan had decreased his four-seam fastball reliance from its nearly 66% mark in his 2021 September debut to about 52%. In place of those heaters were more sliders, which Ryan offered just more than 30% of the time in April.
Ryan discussed his work on his slider with FanGraphs’ David Laurila before an April game in Boston:
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: What is the movement profile on your slider?
Ryan: “Sometimes it’s a -0.5. 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.”
Below are a few examples of Ryan’s early-season slider. You can see in the videos that it’s not a big breaker, but a tighter, shorter one.
Return to What Worked
That early-season uptick in slider usage eroded as the season pressed on. The 30.3% slider usage in April gave way to 21.5% in May, 22.7% in June, then down to 17.6% and 16.9% in July and August per Statcast’s tracking. In their place? Mostly more four-seamers, which Ryan again deployed around 60% or more of his pitches:
His four-seamer held up in the face of that increased deployment. In fact, it was one of the best four-seamers in the sport last season, racking up a -21 cumulative run value and limiting opponents to just a .268 wOBA.
Ryan’s declining slider usage tracked with the pitch getting hit increasingly hard. As the table below shows, in April and May, the pitch was very effective, missing bats and limiting hard contact. But the summer months were a different story entirely, with more contact, more elevated contact, and more extra-base hits:
For most of the season, Ryan averaged about 3 inches of horizontal movement with his slider. In the context of the rest of the league’s low-80s sliders, Ryan’s horizontal movement was more than 60% below average. In April, May, and June, his slider averaged around 38-42 inches of vertical break (gravity included), a mark that was slightly below average.
Ryan admitted to Laurila back in April that he’s a serial “tinkerer.”
“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.”
“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.”
Perhaps in response to the declining slider results, especially in June, Ryan adjusted his slider. In July, August, and early September, Ryan pushed his average slider velocity up above 84 mph for a nine-start stretch. He maintained the shorter, horizontal break from early in the season, but the increased velocity naturally reduced the pitch’s amount of vertical movement:
The results in the table I showed above foreshadowed how that adjustment didn’t exactly turn the pitch around. The change did help it to again miss more bats (36.1% whiff rate) but those were countered by the pitch being easier for batters to elevate. Over that nine-start span from mid-July to mid-September, Ryan’s slider was worth +7.0 runs, and opponents slugged .688 against it — six homers and two doubles on 32 balls in play — with a 21.8° average launch angle.
By mid-September, Ryan’s slider was his worst-performing offering, having yielded +10.4 run value, .278 ISO, and .356 wOBA for the season to that point.
So, Ryan changed his slider again.
Beginning with his start on September 13 when he went seven no-hit innings and struck out nine Royals, Ryan started throwing a bigger breaking and slower slider that regained his early season vertical break (see plot above) and added some newfound horizontal sweep. (Hat tip to Alex Fast, who first pointed this out on Twitter.)
Ryan only threw ten sliders that night against Kansas City, but they averaged 81.4 mph with about 6 inches of horizontal break and 37 inches of vertical movement. In his next start, when he worked 7.2 scoreless innings in Cleveland, Ryan delivered 29 of his new sliders at an average of 79.8 mph and they averaged about 11 inches of horizontal movement and 41 inches of vertical break. Those bigger breakers looked like this:
Across his final four starts, Ryan posted a 1.09 ERA over 24.2 innings, allowed just 12 hits, and struck out 27 batters against just 8 walks. More specifically, hitters went just 2-17 in plate appearances ending on his slider, with only one of those hits going for extra bases (a double). In total, Ryan offered 69 sliders in his last four starts, and the pitch accumulated -1.5 run value, drew whiffs on 28.6% of swings and allowed just .126 wOBA. The ones that were put in play came off the bat at a much more favorable 7.2° average launch angle.
So, does this mean we can set aside our concerns about Ryan’s secondaries? It’s probably not quite that simple. After all, his changeup was also hit pretty hard last season (+4 run value, .277 BA, .492 SLG, .354 wOBA) and this late-season slider adjustment, albeit with promising results, is still a very small sample.
That said, there is some reason to think a bigger breaking slider would be a more cohesive fit within Ryan’s existing arsenal. Sweeping sliders tend to be best paired with sinkers and two-seamers, fastballs that tend to have larger horizontal breaks in the opposite direction as a slider.
Slider Pitch Design 101— Ben Brewster (@TreadAthletics) January 20, 2023
Looking to add or develop a nasty slider but don’t know where to start?
This thread will cover the basics of how to do it.
1. Pick the shape
2. Pick the grip
3. Fine tune the grip
4. Gain comfort, consistency & execution
Let’s break it down
While Ryan is well-established as a four-seam wizard, his four-seamer is not really a true north and south mover. Instead, he has above-average horizontal movement — about 11 inches, or about an inch and a half more than average — compared to other four-seam fastballs in his low-90s velocity range. That shape might make his fastball a good match for a more sweepy, bigger breaking slider going the other way (glove side). The combination makes opposing hitters have to cover much more home plate real estate than the shorter version he was throwing early last season and may help him keep his slider on the edge of the strike zone more consistently.
The initial results at the end of last season are encouraging and it will be interesting to see if Ryan maintains the bigger slider when Spring Training starts next month. If nothing else, it is encouraging to see Ryan demonstrate his aptitude for picking and implementing adjustments. We’ll almost certainly see more of that as his career goes on.