Twins Pitcher Credits Water Polo

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Twins Pitcher Credits Water Polo

Postby CPR » Sun Oct 03, 2021 3:29 am

Pulled this off The Athletic.
Cool article by Dan Hayes…

Back when he was at fourth-grade water polo camp, all Joe Ryan wanted to do was learn how to skip the ball. The now-Twins rookie pitcher watched other boys bouncing their throws off the pool’s surface and hoped to emulate them.

For nearly two summer camps at Canon Kids Sports Camp in Fairfax, Calif., Ryan struggled to uncover the key. But sometime before sixth grade, he realized that including backspin on his throws would make the ball move in any number of directions. The discovery led to hours upon hours in the pool with teammates manipulating the ball and spinning it in every direction.

At the time, it was merely a young athlete finding joy in a sport he loved to play. What Ryan — who was perfect for 6 1/3 innings Wednesday night en route to earning his first career victory in a 3-0 Twins win at Cleveland — didn’t realize was that his efforts in the water were establishing a foundation for success on the diamond.

While nobody can pinpoint the direct impact water polo has had on Ryan’s pitching career, more than a decade in the pool has undoubtedly shaped it. Whether it’s his swimmer’s shoulders, the way he similarly throws both balls through the target or his low arm angle, the influence of Ryan’s other favorite sport is easily detectable when he pitches.

“That makes total sense based on the way he moves and his body in general, his ability to have feel on the shape of the ball,” Twins Triple-A pitching coach Mike McCarthy said. “When you’re grabbing something that is slick like a water polo ball and trying to manipulate it and then make an angle and a bounce, that makes total sense. It would fit.

“His understanding and feel for the baseball and how to deliver it, shape it and move it within the confines of his mechanics is impressive to say the least.”

The Twins have been impressed with just about everything Ryan has done since they acquired him from Tampa Bay for Nelson Cruz on July 22. Whether it was pitching well twice for Team USA in Tokyo during its silver-medal run or the way he handled a whirlwind stretch after the Olympics, returning to North Carolina before moving to St. Paul, Ryan has thrived in difficult conditions.

But Monday’s effort is tops. Working with a slightly varied approach from last week’s major-league debut by using more off-speed pitches, Ryan stymied Cleveland with seven innings of one-hit ball. Despite no early run support, the rookie, who has set down the side in order in 10 of his 12 big-league innings, outdueled Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie and stayed perfect into the seventh inning until Amed Rosario singled. While a bad pickoff attempt allowed Rosario to reach scoring position, Ryan stayed calm and stranded the runner to keep the shutout intact.

“Everything felt a little bit smoother,” Ryan said.

(Courtesy of Willard Anderson)
Even though he increased the usage of his other pitches Wednesday, the key to his success was a fastball opposing hitters have difficulty picking up. While he doesn’t blow hitters away with velocity — his fastball averaged 91.4 mph on Wednesday — Ryan can command his four-seamer anywhere in the strike zone.

Pitching coach Wes Johnson attributes Ryan’s outstanding command to him being able to use his muscular shoulders to slow down his delivery. In all his years as a pitching coach, Johnson has only encountered a few swimmers-turned-pitchers.

All have the same ability.

“I can’t quantify this, but I think it really helps their hands,” Johnson said. “It just puts his arm into a natural slot. … There’s something called scapular rhythm that really helps pitchers when you’re throwing — especially when they go to decelerate or put the brakes on — from a health standpoint, which also allows your hands to work a little freer. Every guy I’ve come across that was more than just a casual swimmer, was some form of a competitive swimmer, grew up in the pool a lot, they typically have that.”

One aspect of Ryan’s game that is atypical compared with his non-sidearm throwing peers is his lower arm angle. Ryan’s 5.1-foot average release point is the second-lowest height among all starting pitchers in the majors this season behind only Milwaukee’s Freddy Peralta (5 feet). His minus-4.1 vertical attack angle is also the third-lowest among starting pitchers this season.

The combination of the two factors creates an optical illusion that makes it appear as if the ball will sink only for him to be able to ride it above hitters’ barrels.

Dylan Woodhead, who played water polo with Ryan for two years at then-Sir Francis Drake High in San Anselmo, Calif., sees a lot of similarity between the way his former teammate attacks hitters to how he attacked the net. Woodhead, who also played high school baseball before committing to the pool, reunited with Ryan last month in Tokyo as each chased their Olympic dreams. While playing for Team USA water polo, Woodhead had an opportunity to watch both of Ryan’s starts for Team USA baseball.

“His arm angle is very unique and low and it definitely is affected by water polo,” Woodhead said. “You can see that pretty easily with a lot of the professional water polo players, how versatile their arm angles are and how much they’re using their torso and core to generate power. Joe obviously generates a lot with his legs too, but there’s definitely some parts of the water polo throwing motion that he’s kind of hung onto while throwing the baseball.”

For Ryan, the biggest impact may have been in the hours he spent spinning the ball — once he learned how to do it.

“I could not skip the ball,” Ryan said.

Then he learned about backspin, and his love for water polo only grew. He played throughout high school, though baseball took precedence after his junior year. But the time he accumulated in the pool manipulating the ball changed how Ryan approached both sports.

“We’d just mess around throwing curveball and sliders,” Ryan said. “You’re not actually shooting it, but seeing how the characteristics of the ball is going to play off the water or off the crossbar.

“’How am I spinning this? How am I staying behind this? How am I getting as much into this as I can?’ That whole mindset helped me with staying on the ball longer and creating more movement and spin.”

The mindset wasn’t all Ryan had. Even from an early age, Ryan combined strength with effort to get himself ahead.

“He had an absolute cannon (in the pool),” Woodhead said. “He could rip it hard. It was a while ago, but I still have memories to this day of how hard he shoots and also how focused he was on his end-goal of baseball even while playing water polo, just being very protective of your arm and being healthy. It was clear to a lot of people he could get a lot of places with his work ethic.”

Now, Ryan carries over the way he threw the water polo ball to his flat-ground throwing sessions, in the bullpen and on the mound. Though he’s still trying to manipulate the ball, the power he used in the pool is equally important.

As his career progressed, Ryan has often thought about how water polo has impacted baseball. With as many aspects as he can cite, it’s clear he’s convinced it has.

“To skip the ball, I always think about throwing it through anything,” Ryan said. “(In baseball) I’m trying to throw through the catcher. … That kind of cerebral mindset is helping you with baseball, too.

“You have the resistance in the water, you’re throwing a heavier ball. You have to make sure your shoulder is in a good position and your hand is in a good position. You’ve got to really accelerate through the ball and get on top of it and stay behind it to skip it off the water. Every throw you’ve got to be able to get through.”

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