BOSTON—Joe Ryan did not disappoint Friday night in his Saint Paul Saints debut. Ryan, the main piece acquired from the Rays in the Nelson Cruz trade, struck out nine Iowa Cubs hitters over four innings, surrendering only a solo home run. Ryan was making his debut after a successful run with Team USA in the Olympics, where he was the team’s opening game starter. Against Israel and South Korea in Tokyo, he allowed just two earned runs over 10.1 innings, striking out 8.
At the Olympics, Ryan did what he’s done throughout his minor league career: rack up a high number of strikeouts, while keeping his walk rate low. In 2019 across three levels, Ryan had a 1.96 ERA, 13.3 K/9, and 2.0 BB/9. In 2021 at Triple-A, he has a 3.54 ERA, 12.4 K/9, and 1.6 BB/9.
Part of what makes Ryan interesting is how he’s putting up those numbers. Though he throws a changeup and curveball, he relies strongly on a four-seam fastball that sits 92-93, hardly elite velocity in today’s game. Despite the lack of velo, though, the fastball produces a ton of swing-and-miss. He lives primarily up in the zone with it, and his outstanding control allows him to place it there consistently. Still, it’s a bit of a mystery why that pitch is as good as it is.
“I don’t think anyone can answer the question on the fastball,” said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli before Tuesday’s game in Boston. “There’s objective things we can look at and then there’s things we have a tough time explaining. And we like to find ways to explain those things, and a lot of the time for me it’s a combination of several things, like very fine differences in guys’ bodies, and arm strokes, and the way their hand comes through and things like that. Some guys just have that deception where hitters just do not see the ball and react to the ball well, and I think Joe has some of that naturally as well.”
Although Ryan’s proved he can get hitters out with the fastball consistently through every level of the minors and in international play, it remains to be seen whether that deception will play at the big league level. Clearly, the Twins have confidence it will, because they jumped at the chance to acquire him. Rather than waiting for a bidding war to ensue for Cruz at the end of the trade deadline—as was the case with José Berríos—they moved the slugger more than a week before the July 30 deadline for Ryan and Drew Strotman. That suggests the return from the Rays was more than they anticipated they’d get back for Cruz.
A lot of their interest in Ryan, of course, was based on how they project him to perform on the field, but Ryan’s makeup also likely played into the trade. Though he appears to have a laid-back demeanor off the field, Ryan’s animated on the mound, and he showed the high-pressure environment of the Olympics wasn’t too much to handle, despite not yet appearing in a big league game.
“Everything we got on the work ethic, character, all the makeup type questions on him, all came back tremendously,” said Baldelli. “And that’s exactly what you’re looking for when you’re trading for an important piece.”
Though it’s possible Ryan could debut this year, don’t expect to see him in the immediate future. Baldelli suggested they want him to get settled in with the Saints before he comes up. That’s not unreasonable, given that he got traded, spent about three weeks in Japan, and moved to Minnesota all within the last five weeks.
Still, with the uncertainty surrounding injuries to Kenta Maeda and Michael Pineda, and the conservative approach they’re taking with Bailey Ober’s innings, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him at some point in September. Either way, Ryan looks to be firmly in the conversation for a place in the 2022 rotation, which will have plenty of spots to fill next spring.