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Something about his fastball means he’s no ordinary Joe

John Romano | Rays prospect Joe Ryan doesn’t throw as hard as some pitchers, but the statistics say his fastball was one of the most unhittable pitches in the minors.
Rays prospect Joe Ryan was pitching in Double-A barely a year after being drafted in the seventh round out of Cal State-Stanislaus in 2018. His unique fastball has quickly moved him up Tampa Bay's list of prospects.
Rays prospect Joe Ryan was pitching in Double-A barely a year after being drafted in the seventh round out of Cal State-Stanislaus in 2018. His unique fastball has quickly moved him up Tampa Bay's list of prospects. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Mar. 7
Updated Mar. 7

ST. PETERSBURG — We live in an era where nothing goes unexplained in a baseball game. We have spin rates for pitchers, launch angles for hitters and range factors for fielders. We know the tendencies of managers, and the cost per victory for every front office.

We have figured out ways to better understand the past and to accurately predict the future. Advanced metrics may not always make the game more enjoyable, but they make the game more comprehensible.

Which brings us to Rays minor leaguer Joe Ryan, and his confounding, inexplicable and, ultimately, awesome fastball.

Ryan, you might have heard, is one of Tampa Bay’s top prospects. Back in 2019 when minor league baseball was still in pre-pandemic mode, Ryan had a whiplash-worthy season of turning heads.

Barely a year removed from Division II Cal State-Stanislaus in northern California where the Rays found him in the seventh round, Ryan went from low Class A to high Class A to Double-A in a matter of months. By season’s end, he had a combined 9-4 record with a 1.96 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 123 innings. He’d also vaulted from anonymity onto most every list of Tampa Bay’s top 10 prospects.

How did this happen?

Well, some factors make perfect sense and others are a little unusual. First of all, Ryan has outstanding command of the strike zone and a useful swagger on the mound. He repeats his delivery perfectly, which keeps hitters off-balance because they’re never sure what pitch is coming.

And then there’s the fastball. It typically sits in the low to mid 90s, which makes it acceptable but not necessarily remarkable. Yet Ryan was throwing his fastball around 75 percent of the time in 2019, which is extremely high, and still getting an unusual number of whiffs. Essentially, he’s getting the kind of swing-and-miss rate usually seen by pitchers with 98-99 mph fastballs.

“When you’re watching him you say, ‘What I am seeing happening is special. I just don’t know why it’s so special,’” said Doc Watson, who was Ryan’s pitching coach at Class A Charlotte in 2019. “I’m watching him milk hitters like they’re jersey cows … he was just a treat, a joy to work with him.”

His fastball does not have exceptional spin rate, movement or velocity, but hitters describe it as explosive. As if they couldn’t even pick it up until it was on top of them. Was it his arm slot? Did his hands-over-the-head old-school delivery make it harder to pick up? Ryan once suggested it was the follow-through he learned as a water polo player that creates an unusual backspin and leads to late movement.

“He does some things that creates a lot of swing-and-miss,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “At times, we look at it and say, ‘What is it? Is it the movement on the fastball? Is it the deception he creates?’ Whatever it is, it’s been successful for him.”

The mystery is entertaining and intriguing but maybe a little concerning, too. The basic issue is that Ryan’s numbers are outperforming his identifiable skills from a scout’s perspective.

So does that mean it’s a fluke? Not necessarily. Ryan now has a history of success in college, the Cape Cod League and the lower minors, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t translate to higher levels. But the lack of measurables — velocity and spin rate — means there will still be doubts until he proves he can get his fastball past older and more accomplished hitters.

In that sense, the pandemic may have cost him more than some other minor leaguers. While he was one of 60 players invited to Tampa Bay’s alternate site last summer, he didn’t get the benefit of a full season at Double-A or Triple-A.

And since he wasn’t drafted until after his senior year in college, his service time in the minors is still relatively low for a pitcher who will turn 25 in a few months. He’s older, for instance, than Shane McClanahan, Luis Patino and Drew Strotman, but they’ve all been added to the 40-man roster, which probably means they’re more likely to reach Tropicana Field at some point this season.

Ultimately, these issues are all details. No matter what the secret is to his fastball, the only thing that really matters is whether it continues being effective.

“I kind of like it being a secret, I guess,” Ryan said. “The less I know, the better. I’ve thrown it for a long time. I just think about throwing it through the target every time, and that’s it. I couldn’t tell you the analytics, they haven’t figured it out. People like to think they have an answer, but I don’t know what it is. I haven’t sat down with anyone that’s told me what makes it special.

“I just know if I throw it, and lift my leg high enough, they probably won’t hit it.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.