Bruce Chen holds a special place in the memories of Tigers fans. A left-handed pitcher whose fastball tops out at 90 miles per hour, Chen has carved out a 16-year MLB career by mixing pitches, changing speeds, and doing just about anything possible to keep hitters off balance. He even tried to pick off Minnesota's Denard Span ten times in one at-bat. Chen has been described in many ways -- "Tiger killer" among them -- but I think that the term "crafty lefty" fits best.
Kyle Ryan is not Bruce Chen. There are some similarities between the two, sure. Ryan's fastball sits at 89-90 miles per hour, similar to what Chen did earlier in his career. Ryan also utilizes a cutter as one of his secondary pitches, something else Chen is known for. Do not mistake this for a player comp, though. It is simply a description of the role and reputation Kyle Ryan will fill throughout his career: crafty lefty who baffles unsuspecting hitters and infuriates fans that can't comprehend why it's so friggin' hard to hit a fastball in the high 80s.
Chicago White Sox fans might already be in that boat after Ryan's MLB debut, an 8-4 Tigers victory that saw Ryan stymie their offense for six shutout innings. Ryan then spent the next month in the Tigers' bullpen, logging four scoreless outings before allowing three runs in his final appearance of the season. Ryan entered the offseason hoping to be in the mix for the Tigers' fifth starter spot, but the team's moves have relegated him to potential fifth starter and bullpen arm status. This may be where he eventually ends up throughout the course of his career, but Ryan is at the enviable prospect status of having already achieved his floor.
The Tigers drafted Ryan out of high school in the 12th round of the 2010 draft. A tall left-hander, Ryan kicked off his career with a 4.17 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 54 innings in the Gulf Coast League in 2010. He moved slowly through the lower minors, spending two years at Single-A West Michigan despite a solid 3.15 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and 3.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first year of full-season ball. He replicated those numbers for the Whitecaps in 2012, then put up a 3.17 ERA in 142 innings at Advanced-A Lakeland in 2013.
Oddly, Ryan's MLB debut coincided with his worst professional season. He struggled upon arriving in Double A for the first time, allowing a 5.77 ERA in his first seven starts. While he calmed down somewhat afterward, he still gave up a 4.00 ERA in his next 14 starts before getting called up to Triple A. Ryan found a groove with the Mud Hens, stifling opponents to the tune of a 1.64 ERA and .455 OPS allowed in five starts. This led to Ryan's call-up for the doubleheader against the White Sox and his aforementioned work in September.
Ryan's arsenal isn't overwhelming -- the Bruce Chen bit above should have given that away -- but it can be effective when used creatively. He averaged 89.7 miles per hour with his fastball in his 10 1/3 major league innings last season, and I would imagine that it sits slightly below that during a typical start. Ryan also throws a cutter that sits in the high 80s, as well as a slider/curveball that is typically in the high 70s or low 80s. He also features a changeup that he uses exclusively against right-handed pitchers. It sits in the mid-80s and has been described by many as his worst offering.
Ryan has a smooth delivery with some deception to it. He utilizes a high leg kick and throws from a three-quarters arm slot. While it seems a bit jerky to the naked eye, Ryan's movement is fluid and the delivery appears to be very repeatable. This has helped him mow down hitters at the lower levels of the minors while walking just 2.01 batters per nine innings in his professional career. The arm slot has also helped him dominate left-handed batters. Lefties have hit just .237 with a .311 slugging average off Ryan in his minor league career.
While Ryan does not throw very hard, a shared belief among many prior to the 2014 season was that Ryan would not be able to increase his fastball velocity in short spurts to pitch out of the bullpen. Ryan helped to dispel that rumor during a short stint in the Tigers' bullpen last September, working his fastball up to 93 miles per hour in multiple appearances.
This uptick in velocity is promising. While Ryan will continue to be used as a starter in most cases, the ability to work out of the bullpen with nastier stuff in short spurts is valuable, especially from the left side. Ryan's platoon splits reinforce this idea, as he would be a tough matchup for a good left-handed hitter.
Last year, Jordan ranked Ryan as the #23 prospect in the Tigers system. In particular, Jordan was interested to see whether Ryan would be able to get hitters out at the higher levels of the minors.
Ryan is a zone-pounder. While that has certainly worked in the low minors against inferior hitters, I am really interested to see what happens when he reaches Double-A this season, and potentially Triple-A in 2015. You see, low minors hitters -- who are typically not very advanced -- have trouble with lefty strike throwers; especially ones with big league curveballs, like Kyle possesses. The real test typically comes in Double-A, where the hitters are more advanced, and won't swing at pitcher's pitches as frequently.
While small samples in Triple A and the majors are encouraging, Ryan's time in Double A seems to have exploited some of the flaws Jordan detailed. Ryan's lack of velocity can be an issue if he does not display pinpoint command, something that involves more than just throwing strikes. Eastern League batters hit .285 and slugged .426 off Ryan last season, including 15 home runs in 21 starts.
Ryan has some great numbers against left-handed batters in the minor leagues, but right-handers have hit him without much difficulty. Righties have hit .283/.326/.417 off him in five minor league seasons, including 13 of the 15 home runs allowed last season. Ryan's delivery allows right-handers a long look at the baseball, and his below average changeup is not a deterrent for hitters sitting on his fastball. Developing the changeup further and improving his numbers against right-handers could be the difference between eventually winning a starting job and a permanent move to the bullpen.
Projected team: Toledo Mud Hens
Like the other rookies who started for the Tigers in 2014, expect Ryan to begin the year in Toledo's rotation. The Tigers have a few left-handed relievers in camp who will get a crack at the 25 man roster before Ryan or Kyle Lobstein, but I would not rule out either of them getting a job in the right circumstances. With just one season in the upper minors under his belt, the 23-year-old Ryan could use the development time to refine his command and secondary pitches. He should see some time in Detroit this season, but it may not be until later in the summer.
New addition: Joey Pankake, third baseman
The Tigers don't have many true bat-first prospects with power projection, and the few that they have are currently blocked by a future Hall of Famer. Then, there's 2014 draft pick Joey Pankake. A seventh round pick with an 80-grade name, Pankake (yes, it's pronounced like you think) hit .294/.345/.400 in short season ball. His defense is a question mark, and most believe he will end up in left field. If he can somehow stick at third base and continue hitting in full-season ball, he should shoot up the Tigers' prospect rankings in 2016.