Kyle Ryan on the mound at Wrigley Field.

From Depth to Mainstay

Since he signed with the Chicago Cubs during the 2018 offseason as a minor league free agent I’ve heard from certain corners that Kyle Ryan would turn out to be a good addition to the bullpen. I’ll be honest, I never viewed the lanky lefthander as anything more than depth for a bullpen that seems to always need such depth. Others told me I was wrong and that when given the chance Ryan would show he belongs. Ryan has finally gotten his chance, and guess what, they were right, he does belong.

Being skeptical of a minor league free agent signing who had struggled mightily in 4 seasons with the Detroit Tigers was understandable. Generally, guys who have put up a career -1.4 bWAR are not the sort who are going to come in and provide much value to an organization. Still, being a lefty reliever the possibility existed that Ryan would figure it out and become a solid depth option. In 2018 Ryan appeared to do that putting up a DRA of 3.05 and DRA- of 64.5 with the Triple-A level Iowa Cubs. The big change Ryan made constituted throwing his cutter more, inducing more grounders, and lowering his BB/9 back to a manageable number.

Following the 2018 season, Ryan elected free agency only to re-sign with the Cubs on a major league deal and be added to the 40 man roster. It didn’t take long for Ryan to make his return to big league action as the Cubs called upon his services a week into the season. Ryan made the most of his opportunity and seemed to have settled in as an average arm out of the bullpen. Still, he struggled with control and with erratic usage by Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

About a month ago Ryan found another gear and has gone from an arm in the pen to one of Maddon’s most trusted relievers. This change took place because Ryan moved away from his fourseam fastball and started to rely more on his sinker and cutter. In April and May Ryan threw his fourseam 24.6 and 23.8 percent of the time. He was throwing his sinker and cutter a fair amount as well, neither pitched register below a 20% usage point in either month. But, In June and July, he has only thrown his fourseam fastball 14.5 and 15.6 percent of the time. Contrast that with his sinker at 23.7 and 37.0, or his cutter and it’s 46.2 and 34.4 percent usage. Those pitches are working for Ryan, regardless of the handedness of the batter, and that’s how Ryan has become a main cog in the Cubs pen as opposed to just an arm or a lefty specialist.

By using his cutter and sinker more the Auburndale, Florida native has become a groundball machine. His GB/BiP rate, meaning the number of groundballs he’s getting per balls put in play, is 41.1% on his cutter and 76.1% on his sinker. This helps to explain why a quick look at Ryan’s Baseball Savant page doesn’t bring about a lot of confidence. He isn’t throwing the ball hard or putting much spin on any of his pitches. When he does give up contact it is very hard and he’s not striking many guys out. That is all very true, but also very misleading. He doesn’t need a lot of spin because he is keeping the ball low in the zone. Ryan’s cutter and sinker don’t need a lot of velocity because they have a heavy downward movement. The low K% is mitigated by the fact that he has a career-high K/9 of 9.1. The hard contact is welcome because he’s inducing hitters to make very hard contact right into the ground and he has a GB% of 56 to show for his efforts.

If you had told me that entering August Kyle Ryan would have pitched 40.3 innings and accumulated a 3.37 DRA, 69.3 DRA-, and a bWAR of 0.9 I would have given you a mean sideways glance. Well, here we are entering August and Ryan has put up those numbers and positioned himself as one of the most reliable and important arms in the Cubs bullpen. Reports are that the Cubs are searching for more bullpen help, and that is definitely the right call. But, down these stretch months pay more attention to Kyle Ryan because he’s bullpen help that materialized internally and he’s not showing any signs of letting up.

Lead photo courtesy of Jonathan Daniel – Getty Images

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), husband, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and Off the Bench Baseball; freelance writer at various online and print publications. Member Internet Baseball Writers Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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