Unsung Kyle Ryan stabilizing Tigers bullpen

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Kyle Ryan

Detroit – You know what they say about the squeaky wheel getting the grease?

Kyle Ryan is the antithesis of that. He doesn’t get the grease. Doesn’t want it. Doesn’t need it.

For a guy who stands 6-5 with a scruffy beard that would make a hockey player three playoff rounds deep jealous – Ryan is a fairly anonymous member of the Tigers’ bullpen.

Especially for a guy as consistently good and increasingly valuable as he’s been.

You probably don’t remember that it was Ryan who closed out Jordan Zimmermann’s shutout over the Yankees in the home opener this year. He did so by striking out Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, both looking.

Announcing his presence with authority, though it went largely unnoticed.

“I haven’t been in that situation a whole bunch,” he said that day. “But it’s a feeling like no other – to be able to close a game. One, it’s Opening Day. Two, it’s Opening Day and there are tons of fans. Three, pitching out of the bullpen, so your adrenaline is high already.”

Just a couple of months before that, though, Ryan wasn’t even on his own manager’s radar.

“At the beginning of spring training, if you would have held a gun to my head, I probably would have told you it’s more looking like Ryan would go to Toledo,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “But he worked his way into the discussion quickly by the way he pitched.”

Verlander shows 'moxie' in notching milestone strikeout

Spring injuries to Alex Wilson, Daniel Norris and Blaine Hardy may have helped Ryan land a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he’s more than secured it since. In 16 appearances this season, he’s allowed only two inherited runners to score.

And when the Tigers needed to send a left-hander back to Toledo, it was Hardy who got the bus ticket.

“One thing we always liked about him was his ability to get ground balls,” Ausmus said. “That’s very valuable coming out of the bullpen.”

Ryan was summoned in the sixth inning Tuesday with two on and one out, and the Tigers down 2-0. He got Eddie Rosario to ground into a double play. That was a pivotal moment in the game. Ryan kept the deficit at two and the Tigers rallied to win.

Getting ground balls is his forte. His percentage of ground ball outs is 53. He’s pitched in 13 double-play situations in his 17.1 innings of work, and induced five double plays.

In 16 appearances this season, Kyle Ryan has allowed only two inherited runners to score.

Ryan doesn’t throw hard; rarely will a pitch clock above 90 mph. But he can make the ball dance.

“With my pitches, they move everywhere,” said Ryan, who has pitched in every inning this season except the first and second. “It makes it hard on the hitter, and my catcher.”

Jarrod Saltalamacchia seconded that.

“His ball doesn’t ever do the same thing every time,” he said. “You call for a sinker and it might cut, or it might sink. He’s got a funky arm action, as well. He’s not a guy who’s going to hit the spot every time. It’s almost like he’s wildly effective.”

Wildly effective – that’s been true on several levels. But even Ryan admits he’s never quite sure from day to day how his pitches are going to react.

“The four-seam (fastball) has been the most difficult to control, just because I’ll be tired one day and then I’ll be fresh,” Ryan said. “One day it’ll cut, one day it won’t. On the days it cuts, I have to accommodate for the cut. When it doesn’t cut, I have to adjust to that.”

There was a time when Ryan couldn’t harness the various, random movements of his pitches. His walk rate per nine innings last season was 3.20. This season, it’s down to 1.04. And when you don’t throw a pitch harder than 90 mph, you need a lot of movement on the ball and you need to be able to throw it where you want, when you want.

These days, it’s like Ryan is throwing darts.

“Yeah, it helps when I throw strikes, when I have a feel for all my pitches,” he said. “If I throw a curveball for a strike, the hitter says, ‘He can throw it for a strike.’ Then when I throw it again and he sees it, he knows there is a chance it can be a strike, so he swings, when it’s a ball.

“So they either hit a ground ball or they swing through it.”

When Ryan is hitting spots, hitters can’t eliminate any of his pitches. His fastball velocity is averaging 89 mph, but it’s three different pitches – four-seam, sinker and cutter. And when he establishes the curveball and/or changeup, hitters haven’t had comfortable swings against him.

“There’s always going to be days when they can eliminate a pitch, just because it’s not there,” Ryan said. “But it’s 10 times better when you get a feel for it and you can throw any pitch for a ball or a strike.”

Maybin’s arrival brings new spirit to Tigers

He’s allowed five runs in 17.1 innings. Three of those runs came against Cleveland, in his longest outing of the season, 3.2 innings. The other two came against Texas on a two-run homer by left-handed hitting Mitch Moreland.

So in 14 of his 16 outings, he’s put up zeros.

“You know, he has a pretty good idea of where he wants it to go,” Saltalamacchia said. “And he does a good job of, when he falls behind, he throws a strike with something, whether it’s a fastball or changeup or curve.

“It’s tough for a left-hander like that, especially with his funky mechanics, to be consistent, but he does a good job of doing that.”

Again, you may not have noticed – and he’s OK with that – but Kyle Ryan has been the most consistent performer in the Tigers’ bullpen.

Twitter @cmccosky