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Joe Ryan’s Next Adjustment

Ryan might have reached the limit of his great four-seamer and will need to trust his other weapons

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

After ten starts this season, it looked like Joe Ryan had made a leap. He woke up before his start on May 30 in Houston with a 2.21 ERA, the 2.38 FIP to match, and improvements in his strikeout and walk rates that supported the idea that he was ascending.

That great start to the season also came on the heels of a much-ballyhooed offseason trip to Driveline, resulting in a new breaking ball and splitter that promised to give the always fastball-reliant Ryan some more effective secondary options.

Despite the clearly special deceptive characteristics of his heater, his excellent results at every level, and our growing ability to understand why his fastball played well above its velocity and spin characteristics, Ryan had been overcoming doubts about his true upside for years because there just wasn’t a modern example for a successful, let alone top-of-the-rotation, starting pitcher with a low-90s fastball that they threw something like 60% of the time.

The improvement of the secondary offerings was seen as an important next step in Ryan’s progression from a potential multi-inning “look” reliever, to a high-probability mid-rotation starter, to potentially something more.

Through most of May, things looked like that’s where he was headed.

Then the Homers Started

Alex Bregman and Chas McCormick got Ryan for round-trippers that late May day in Houston. Detroit’s Javy Baez and Matt Vierling added a couple more a few starts later. Atlanta tagged Ryan for a whopping five home runs in the first ten batters faced during a 3-inning start on June 27, and that kicked off what’s now six straight starts in which Ryan has allowed at least one home run (and 13 total in that span).

Over Ryan’s last eleven starts, he’s worked to a 5.90 ERA and 5.19 FIP, despite retaining his gains in strikeouts and walks. Ryan’s K-BB% is identical, 24.8%, in both spans. For the season, his 29.6% strikeout rate is in the 87th percentile and his 4.8% walk rate is in the 92nd percentile. He’s still missing bats and avoiding free passes with the best of them, but the results have changed dramatically.

Reviewing the Usual Suspects

His recent struggles do not appear to be a case of his batted-ball fortune suddenly flipping. Ryan’s batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP) in his first ten starts was .280. Since it’s .301. Worse, yes, but also not really out of bounds from what we’d expect from random variation in a season. (On the other hand, it is probably worth mentioning that his seasonal .290 BABIP is a fair bit higher than last season’s .253, and his career .264 mark.)

Mostly the same story also goes for his left-on-base rate, which was 78.7% in his first ten starts, and has been 70.1% since. Those are almost perfectly in line with his career 75.3% mark.

Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees
Joe Ryan delivers a pitch in the first inning against the New York Yankees
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

One place where you could argue that Ryan has suffered some misfortune in his last 11 starts is his home run luck. His home run per fly ball rate has skyrocketed to 18.3% (meaning, about 1 out of every 5 fly balls Ryan has allowed has gone for a homer in that span).

That said, it’s probably just a correction to the mean, more than bad luck. Ryan’s HR per fly ball rate was just 5.9% in his first ten starts, about half his career 11.1% mark. Moreover, Statcast estimates the expected number of home runs a pitcher should have allowed based on batted ball data (launch angle, velocity, distance, and ballpark) and Ryan’s xHR is 21.7, which is almost perfectly in line with his 21 actual homers allowed.

When I’m analyzing a pitcher, there are a lot of things that I like to check for differences. But, for the most part, Ryan’s physical pitch data is similar to how it’s usually been. His velocity, spin rates, and spin directions are in line with the past. His pitch movement hasn’t changed notably either. That said, the pitch quality models are more down on his recent arsenal than they were earlier in the season, as you can see in the table below:

Data from FanGraphs

Managing the Count

One thing that appears to have changed fairly significantly is the degree to which Ryan has pitched with the advantage of the ball-strike count. Sometimes, baseball is simple, and the count is an amazingly impactful factor in driving hitter production.

For example, in the Statcast era (now in its 9th season, if you can believe that), the league average triple-slash line for hitters when they are behind in the ball-strike count is .200/.209/.310 (.222 wOBA). When they’ve been ahead in the count, they’ve batted .291/.467/.513 (.424). The count matters a ton.

In his first ten starts, Ryan threw just more than 40% of his total pitches when ahead in the count and held opponents to just .181 wOBA on those pitches. In some measure, this was because Ryan threw 71.9% of his first pitches for a strike. On the flip side, only 16% of his pitches came when he was behind in the count (1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-2), and he was able to suppress opponent production to a very respectable.305 wOBA.

You can probably guess where this is going.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Minnesota Twins
Joe Ryan (41) reacts to his throwing error to second base in the third inning against the San Francisco Giants at Target Field.
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

In his last eleven starts, Ryan has worked ahead less frequently. He’s thrown (a still pretty good) 62.8% first-pitch strikes, but his share of his pitches thrown when he’s behind in the count has increased to 24.3%. Opponents have made him pay with a .446 wOBA produced in those situations. Commensurately, Ryan’s share of pitches thrown with the count advantage has dropped to 32.7%, and he’s allowed a somewhat less effective .260 wOBA on those offerings.

Not surprisingly, given those figures, Ryan’s overall zone rate has dropped from 55.1% earlier in the season to 51.5%. At the same time, hitters have chased fewer of Ryan’s offerings out of the zone (42.4% to 36.7%) as they’ve found themselves in better counts and less often in protect mode.

Old Reliable (and Predictable)

I shared with you above that he’s not walking many hitters. Even though he’s been in the zone less overall and behind in the counts more often, more walks have not followed. That suggests that when he falls behind he’s working aggressively over the plate to get back into counts. We can see that’s the case from these pitch location heatmaps this season:

Joe Ryan Ahead vs. Joe Ryan Behind
Data from Baseball Savant

The heatmap blob that is smack in the middle of the strike zone is Ryan’s location map when he’s behind in the count. I would guess that a lot of pitchers’ heatmaps look like this when they are behind.

What makes it stand out for Ryan, though, is that he gets very predictable when he falls behind.

Overall, he throws his four-seamer 57% of the time this season. That’s already a very high rate for a primary pitch. When he’s ahead in the count, that drops to 51% as he mixes in more sweepers and splitters for chase and swings and misses. As a result, hitters can’t sit on his fastball quite as much, and they’ve produced just .199 wOBA against it.

When he’s behind, he goes to his four-seamer almost 72%. And, as you saw above in the pitch location plots, most of those are somewhere right near the heart of the plate. As a result, opponents have blasted Ryan’s four-seamer (as great as it is) to the tune of .391 wOBA and 3 home runs when the ball-strike count is in their favor.

In his last 11 starts, that has also extended to even counts. Ryan has been less predictable (54.5% four-seamer) in even counts, but opponents still have had no problem sitting on his heater. They’ve produced .395 wOBA and launched 6 of those home runs allowed against his fastball in even counts since the end of May. (In total for the season, his four-seamer has been the culprit for 12 of his 21 home runs allowed).

Ryan’s Next Adjustment: A Strike Stealer

At issue in all of this is Ryan’s seeming discomfort, or lack of confidence, in throwing his secondary pitches for strikes when he’s behind in the count. His breaking ball and splitter are improved as swing-and-miss offerings, but he’s not consistently demonstrated an ability to throw them as strike stealers.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Minnesota Twins
Joe Ryan will need to improve his ability to throw his secondary pitches for called strikes
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Only 36% of his sweepers, and about 47% of his splitters, have landed in the strike zone this season. Some of that is by design when he’s ahead and throwing them for chase when he’s working for strikeouts. But the very-heavy fastball reliance when behind in the count suggests he’s not exactly comfortable turning to those pitch types when he needs a strike. That makes it pretty straightforward for opponents to develop their approach and game plans. As counterintuitive as it may be to attack a pitcher’s #1 strength, it appears opposing hitters have been happy to sit fastball and dare Ryan to get back into counts with offspeed pitches.

So, he’ll need to adjust. In part, that will mean again getting in front on 0-0 pitches more frequently, ideally by throwing more sweepers and splitters for strikes. It will also mean refining his command of those secondaries, particularly the sweeper, to be able to throw them over when he needs a strike and to push hitters off his fastball when he falls behind. It could also mean more precise locations with his fastball when behind in the count. I would even entertain returning his former curveball, which isn’t a great pitch in a vacuum, to his arsenal, to use specifically (and only) as an occasional called strike-stealer.

John is a writer for Twinkie Town and Pitcher List with an emphasis on analysis. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.