As the one and only trade deadline nears, talk of the Cubs adding a lefty reliever to the bullpen has intensified. With Mike Montgomery traded away and Randy Rosario optioned to make room for a healthy Carl Edwards Jr., Kyle Ryan is left as the lone remaining southpaw in that relief corps.
With the Cubs facing a gantlet down the stretch that includes Christian Yelich, Joey Votto, Cody Bellinger and Bryce Harper, a lock-down lefty seems an obvious wish-list item. That is why Will Smith and others have been floated as possible trade targets for the North Siders. But Ryan’s work this season should not be overlooked, especially when the Cubs find themselves lacking in more areas than just the bullpen.
The 27-year-old former Tiger has appeared in 42 games, working 33.2 innings to the tune of a 3.21 ERA, though he’s been pitching at an elite level since early June. Lacking a true swing-and-miss offering, Ryan will always be subject to a measure of luck on balls in play. Even so, inducing weak contact — especially on the ground for double plays — will mitigate that weakness and make Ryan a viable relief option no matter who is at the plate.
He’s been much more than just viable over the last month and a half, but it hasn’t been easy to see that improvement in real time. That’s largely because, despite a career-best 41.9% whiff rate on his heater, Ryan has actually gotten better by pitching to more contact and striking out fewer batters.
Through his first 25 outings, he racked up a very respectable 10.05 K/9 and was generating a solid 45.6% groundball rate. At that same time, his 5.06 ERA and .333 BABIP said he was leaving too many pitches over the plate. And though his ERA against lefty batters was a sterling 0.00, they were tagging him for an .833 OPS and .455 BABIP while producing hard contact half the time.
A change in both repertoire and location in the time since has Ryan pitching to the kind of numbers you’d expect from an elite setup man. After making up only 28% of his offerings through June 1, he’s throwing the cutter just as often as his fastball (42.8%) and he’s keeping all of his pitches out of the heart of the zone. Just look at these heat maps, folks.
While he’s dropped to just 7.07 K/9 over the last 17 outings (14 IP), Ryan is generating a freakish 76.2% groundball rate and 0.64 ERA that includes zero homers. Lefties have posted just a .380 OPS in that time with a .222 BABIP that comes from beating the ball on the ground 83.3% of the time with only 16.7% hard contact.
While his three strikeouts against 21 lefties faced in that sample are not impressive, he has not walked any of them. The Cubs have coveted strike-throwers for the bullpen over the last several years, and in Ryan they have exactly that. We already saw above that where he’s throwing strikes has made a difference, but it’s also how he’s thrown them.
Ryan presents a difficult matchup for any batter, but left-handed hitters are particularly susceptible to his unique release point. Unlike any other southpaw in the game right now, Ryan’s release point offers a different look from what batters have seen before or since. Hitting his spots from that angle has hitters chasing stuff they might otherwise let go, hence the gaudy numbers since he’s gotten settled in.
Ryan will give up his fair share of contact, some of which may well bleed through for base hits. But as long as he is inducing an elite groundball rate and not walking many batters, he will be a more than serviceable relief pitcher.