DETROIT — The first time Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene saw Joe Ryan, he was making his final Minor League start last year for Triple-A St. Paul, having just joined the Twins system from the Rays in the Nelson Cruz deal. Ryan pitched in Toledo last August against a Mud Hens lineup that included Torkelson, Greene, Ryan Kreidler, Eric Haase and Isaac Paredes, and held Toledo to a Kody Clemens sacrifice fly over five innings with eight strikeouts.
A year later, Ryan has given up just two runs over 23 2/3 innings against the Tigers, with three walks and 33 strikeouts.
“Yeah, I’ve had enough of Joe Ryan this year,” manager A.J. Hinch said Friday after Ryan’s six scoreless innings and eight strikeouts sent the Tigers to a 7-0 loss to the Twins at Comerica Park. “He’s really good.”
The Tigers have been shut out 22 times this year, second-most in franchise history behind Detroit’s 26 shutouts in 1904. It marks the most shutout losses by an American League team since the league adopted the designated hitter in 1973. Ryan is the only starting pitcher responsible for two of Detroit’s 22 shutouts. His latest ended the Tigers’ six-game winning streak, which had tied their season high.
The way he keeps Detroit’s hitters off-balance, Ryan could probably do it again if the season wasn’t nearing an end. He doesn’t overpower hitters with velocity, nor does he have a singular wipeout pitch. Yet his ability to create deception from the pitches that he has, making those pitches work for him, is something the Tigers have yet to figure out. They’re far from the only team, but they’re near the top of the list.
“Honestly, his fastball is 92-93 [mph], but it gets on you,” Jonathan Schoop said. “It’s got some life on it. And his curveball is pretty good, too. He makes his pitches.”
As Torkelson tried to explain the deception, he raised and lowered his hands to demonstrate where Ryan releases the ball and where a hitter’s eyes see the ball as it approaches.
“He kind of upshoots it,” Torkelson said, “so when you have 92 [mph] going like that, your eyes are used to [another angle] here, instead of there. It’s tough to explain. It’s almost like a guy with high vertical break. You don’t see it metrically on his vertical break, but his release height makes it tough to see.”
Ryan’s average fastball velocity of 92 mph ranks in just the 28th percentile among Major League pitchers, according to Statcast. Yet opponents entered Friday batting just .173 against it, the fourth-lowest batting average against a pitcher’s four-seam fastball since Statcast began tracking in 2015. In terms of Run Value — a category Statcast uses to value the impact a pitch has on a game based on situations and results — it’s one of the best fastballs in the game right now.
Ryan threw fastballs with 55 of his 91 pitches Friday. The Tigers swung at 32, missed on 10, fouled off 14 and put eight in play with an average exit velocity of 78.9 mph. They didn’t put any in play with a triple-digit exit velocity.
“He beat us with fastballs,” Hinch said, “and obviously the chase slider when we had to anticipate his fastball. If you don’t beat him to the spot with his fastball, it’s tough. He’s really good at changing his pace. The slide-step fastball is very effective. He disrupts your timing, and he throws enough strikes to get you defensive. We’ve seen that a lot this year.”
The Tigers have struggled against fastballs in general this season. Their .254 batting average off fastballs ranks 24th in the Majors. Their average exit velocity of 88.8 mph ranks 29th. Their .310 weighted on-base average (wOBA) off fastballs ranks 30th. As Detroit looks to retool its offense for next year, hitting fastballs will be near the top of the to-do list.
Ryan doesn’t overpower hitters with his fastball as much as he deceives them. The Tigers will have to adjust, because he and his fastball aren’t going anywhere.
“You just have to stay above it,” Torkelson said, noting something that is easier said than done.