Ryan's fastball: Hard to explain, harder to hit

Twins rookie showing early domination in bigs with deceptive heater

September 27th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- Baseball was one of the focal points of 's athletic life as he grew up in Marin County, in wine country across the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco -- but it 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 -- but that's not the case.

“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 offspeed stuff, it all starts with that fastball. It always has.