Mixing It Up: Ryan returns like new, Sanchez adding movement

MLB: Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins

Welcome to Mixing It Up, a weekly column where I look at starting pitchers who are making noteworthy changes to their pitch mix or pitch shape/velocity. In this column, I'll break down three to five pitchers each week who have shown a change in their profile that has me intrigued. It won't always be a pitcher who requires an immediate add but could be somebody who has worked his way onto our fantasy baseball radars or a pitcher I think is set to begin a productive stretch. I'll always try to make sure we have enough of a sample size to work with and I'll be mixing in both shallow and deep league targets, so there should be a little something for everyone.

In the last few weeks we identified some positive changes in Luis Medina , Steven Matz, Freddy Peralta , Cole Ragans , Brandon Williamson , and Chase Silseth before major breakouts so hopefully we can hit on a few more arms making intriguing changes.

With that said, let's dig in to this week's pitchers of note.

Joe Ryan - Minnesota Twins

Generally speaking, I don't like to spend too much time analyzing changes in just one start because they can often be fueled by the specific opponent or how a pitcher feels his pitches are working in the bullpen before the game. Yet, when an established starter comes back from a layoff and makes a slew of changes, I think it warrants a bit of a deeper look.

Making his first start in over three weeks, Joe Ryan had a noticeable change in approach during his five innings against the Rangers. For starters, Ryan, who has been using a slider off and on all season to complement his sweeper, actually turned to his slider more often. He also increased the usage of his splitfinger while showcasing more movement on the splitter and more extension overall.

Joe Ryan Pitch Mix

Some of these changes could also be the result of Ryan simply being fully healthy after spending time on the IL with a groin strain. There was never one clear moment when Ryan got hurt, but he had allowed 31 earned runs in 32.1 innings prior to going on the IL, so it's possible that he was dealing with an injury for a while. A groin injury would have had myriad consequences on his delivery from limiting his drive off the rubber to preventing full rotation on his release. Much of that could be the reason why we saw a jump in Ryan's extension in his first start back.

Now that he's fully healthy, he's able to fully let go, so the added extension, which lowered his release point and led to increased vertical break on his fastball could all be legitimate changes.

However, I'm less optimistic about the added drop on Ryan's splitter, which dropped three inches more than prior to his stint on the IL. The pitch had just an 11% whiff rate and 15% CSW in that first game back, so it's possible that the added movement has made the pitch easier to identify out of his hand. We won't know that for sure until another start or two.

The slider was also good for him in his one start, and the sweeper really hasn't been a great pitch for Ryan this season with a 12.6% swinging strike rate (SwStr%), 10.3% barrel rate, and 6.96 dERA (Defense Independent ERA). Mixing in the harder and tighter slider more often may not be a bad idea for Ryan, who would be elevated by finding a more consistent third pitch.

I think this version of Ryan looked more like the early season version that was a top 20 starting pitcher.

Bobby Miller - Los Angeles Dodgers

A rookie season is often a rollercoaster of ups and downs and adjustments. That's exactly what we're seeing from Bobby Miller, who burst onto the scene by allowing just two earned runs in his first 23 innings. He then got lit up for 13 in his next two starts and posted a 5.27 ERA in June and 4.64 ERA in July. Yet, Miller has begun to bounce back in August with a 2.45 ERA and 16 strikeouts across 22 innings.

Part of that success could be attributed to a clear change in his pitch mix and pitch shape. After leaning on his sinker heavily early in the summer, Miller has severely dialed back his usage of the pitch and begun to rely far more on his four-seam fastball. He has also started to slowly increase the use of his curveball, which has replaced the slider as his primary secondary pitch.

Bobby Miller Pitch Mix

Those changes all make sense on the surface. So far this season, the four-seam has been the superior fastball for Miller. It has a 9.9% SwStr%, 6.3% barrel rate allowed, and 2.57 dERA. Meanwhile, the sinker has an 8.0% SwStr%, 10.9% barrel rate allowed, and 4.80 dERA. Similarly, the curveball has a 3.45 dERA compared to a 4.59 dERA on the slider and only has a slightly worse SwStr%. That's likely why we're seeing Miller's strikeout totals drop a bit of late, while the results overall have improved.

Another change has been the movement profile on Miller's four-seam as the season has gone on. As you can see from the chart below, pulled from Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard, Miller has increased both his vertical movement and his vertical approach angle above average (VAA AA) as the season has gone on.

Bobby Miller four-seam

Alex also wrote an article for FanGraphs last year where he mentioned the importance of Vertical Approach Angle, which is the angle at which a pitch approaches home plate. He mentioned that VAA is a product of any/all of velocity, pitch height, and release point. Based on Alex's research a positive VAA AA illustrates that the four-seam is flatter than average and "the flatter a pitcher’s four-seam fastball, (1) the lower in the zone it can induce whiffs (per swing), and (2) the larger its margin for error throughout the zone."

Well, Miller's fastball appears to be getting flatter based on its VAA AA and it has posted an 11.2% SwStr% in the second half of the season as compared to a 6.7% SwStr% in the first half. We like to see that, and we like to see that Miller is relying more on than pitch now, which, when complemented by solid slider and curves, gives him a safer floor to pair with his tantalizing ceiling.

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Josiah Gray - Washington Nationals

Sometimes you get a pitcher who doesn't want to make one change to their arsenal but seems to be rebuilding on the fly. We're seeing that a bit with Josiah Gray over the summer.

Josiah Gray pitch mix

As you can see, from July to August Gray has significantly adjusted the usage of his slider, sinker, curveball, and cutter. That may raise your eyebrows, but what should raise them even more is that August has been, by far, Gray's worst month. He's posted a 7.79 ERA in 17.1 innings despite posting his lowest batting average against (.239) of any month of the season. However, he has also allowed a 17.6% barrel rate in August, which lets us know that even though he's not allowed as many hits, he's allowing far more hard contact.

Part of that is not a surprise since Gray has allowed a 16.7% barrel rate on his curveball and a 13.3% barrel rate on his sinker in the second half of the season. He has significantly increased the usage of both of those pitches, and they have each performed worse than in their limited usage in the first half of the season.

Considering the curve has the highest SwStr% of any of his pitches, it makes sense that Gray would have wanted to utilize the pitch more, but it's also entirely possible that it's a pitch that performs better in a lesser role. Sometimes when hitters see a pitch more often and begin to look for that pitch, it becomes easier to pick up. Gray could have been experiencing success with the curve since it was his fourth most-used pitch and could often catch a hitter off guard.

At the end of the day, Gray has been searching for a consistent version of a fastball for much of the year, but I don't fully get why he would limit the usage of his slider, which has been his best pitch this season.

Cristopher Sanchez - Philadelphia Phillies

Another pitcher who has made changes to their pitch mix that have not yet led to results is Cristopher Sanchez , who has decreased the usage of his sinker while increasing both the use and movement on his slider.

Sanchez Pitch Mix

Yet, August has also been his worst month with a 4.70 ERA (5.43 dERA) across 23 innings after posting a 2.40 ERA (3.61 dERA) in June and a 2.25 ERA (2.26 dERA) in July. Still, I'm not overly concerned with the poor results.

On one hand, some of it is natural regression. Sanchez was not going to be a 2.40 ERA pitcher for the remainder of the season. He has also started to see his sinker get hit harder with a 6.89 dERA and 14.8% barrel rate. However, we also see that he's limiting the usage of that pitch, so he understands that it's not his best offering.

What intrigues me is that Sanchez has added movement to his slider, as you can see from this Brooks Baseball graph of vertical movement below.

Sanchez Slider movement

He has also seen a huge jump in SwStr% from 9.2% in July to 17.6% in August. Now, Sanchez has done this in June as well, but that also led to an 18% SwStr% on the pitch and one of his best months. I think the added movement is a net positive for Sanchez, and we have past results to bear that out, so I think we'll start to see the production follow. I'd still be holding where I could.