Image credit: Joe Ryan (Photo by Tom DiPace)
There are plenty of ways to grade a fastball these days. Any combination of angle, plane, deception or spin rate can help the pitch play better than what it shows on a radar gun.
Getting Wander Franco to swing and miss at one is a pretty strong indicator, too.
Rays righthander Joe Ryan did just that in an instructional league game last fall at Tropicana Field, and has spent most of his first full season as a pro getting opposing hitters to do the same.
“Several guys kept saying ‘I’ve not seen a fastball like that in my career,’” high Class A Charlotte pitching coach Doc Watson said. “Even when we were playing Fort Myers, (Trevor) Larnach, who’s their best hitter, in my opinion, he made a comment … he said ‘Doc, I’m gonna tell you what, that arm is electric. It comes through and you do not see the baseball until it’s on top of you.’ so I’ll take it from them and just say that it is an electric arm.”
The numbers bear out what Watson has heard. Ryan has thrown 76 percent fastballs this season and still has a swinging-strike rate of 16.7 percent, which is among the best in the minor leagues.
The pitch was at its best in a recent start against Dunedin, which featured two of the most contact-oriented hitters in the Florida State League at the top of its lineup. Catcher Alejandro Kirk has swung and missed just 5.6 percent of the time in the FSL, and leadoff man Cal Stevenson (who has since been traded to the Astros) has done so just 3.9 percent of the time, which ranks him fifth in the minor leagues.
In the first inning, Ryan struck out Stevenson swinging on an elevated fastball, then struck out Cullen Large on an elevated fastball, then struck out Kirk on, you guessed it, an elevated fastball.
Ryan’s fastball itself doesn’t stand out to the naked eye. He throws it in the 92-95 mph range, and it spins at around 2,250 revolutions per minute, which is roughly average. Nevertheless, the ball gets by hitters over and over and over again, especially when he parks it at the top of the strike zone.
The righthander believes part of the reason his fastball plays the way it does is because of the years he spent playing water polo.
“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 isn’t all fastball, though, and his pitch mix has evolved greatly over the last year and a half. In that time, every pitch other than his four-seam fastball currently in his arsenal is either a new addition or has had its grip tweaked.
In the start against Dunedin, for example, Ryan’s repertoire included a four-seam fastball, a cutter, a changeup and a curveball. Five days later against Clearwater, the cutter had become a slider.
Going forth, he might have both pitches.
“He could use it as a cutter when he wants to just have some movement to his glove side and then take it bigger as a full-fledged slider and let them play off of each other,” Watson said, “but my goal going into it was to give him a cutter and once that pitch really started to show promise, take it to another step, which is where he is right now.”
As Watson mentioned, the cutter is fairly new as well. He learned the pitch with help from reliever Hunter Wood (who has since been 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.
The version he threw against Dunedin was 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. The pitch he showed against Clearwater wasn’t a lesser version of his cutter, it was a true slider with three-quarter break in the mid-80s.
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.
“I think I was watching (Zack) Greinke’s highlights a little too much and seeing those 60 mph curveballs. They were cracking up in Bowling Green because I’d toss a 65 mph curveball after a 95 mph fastball and that was pretty fun,” Ryan said. “Now it’s more of a true pitch that I can use as a putaway pitch to get ahead in the count early and now it’s back up in the high-70s. That was just a grip change for me and just thinking about getting through it more.”
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.”
Getting Franco to swing through his fastball was impressive enough, but Ryan has spent his first full season as a pro proving that it was anything but an anomaly.