For the past ten years, the term “Dodgers ace” has meant none other than Clayton Kershaw. However, pioneered by an assortment of injuries and lack of velocity, Kershaw is no longer the pitcher he once was. This leads to the question: “Who is the Dodgers’ best pitcher now?” Many turn to 24-year-old stud Walker Buehler as the answer, but I have a different name in mind: Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Ryu was signed by the Dodgers in 2013 via the posting system from the KBO in South Korea. He started out the first two years of his career extremely well, but injuries forced him to miss all of 2015 and most of 2016. When he returned in 2017, he struggled and had clearly lost the edge that had made him so good during the beginning of his career. Despite this off year, Ryu was able to bounce back in 2018 and reinvigorate his career.
Last season, Ryu led the Dodgers in ERA, FIP, and xFIP, with 1.93, 3.00, and 3.11, respectively. He was able to do this by combining two exceptional pitches: his fastball and his changeup. According to Fangraphs pitch values, Ryu was one of only five starters to sport at least a six rating in both fastball and changeup effectiveness, joining the likes of Blake Snell, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and Jacob Degrom. These pitch value ratings shed light on exactly how successful a given pitch type has been, judging by the run expectancy change after the pitch is thrown. An average value is zero, while anything over five is considered outstanding. Being able to keep hitters off balance with both an elite fastball and changeup dictated his success.
Hyun-Jin Ryu fans Andrew Benintendi with a smooth curveball. pic.twitter.com/4IDDdbwCoq
— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) October 25, 2018
While Ryu’s raw stuff was clearly effectual, so was his ability to command the strike zone. Ryu was one of only three starters with a minimum of 80 innings to post a strikeout rate above 27 percent, and a walk rate under five percent. Ryu’s corner painting certainly helped him out, but the biggest factor for his success in 2018 was his changeup.
While used sparingly towards the start of the year, Ryu picked up his usage of his changeup, and it quickly became a go-to pitch. He held hitters to just a 34 wRC+ against it, where 100 is league average. The reason this pitch was so effective was its combination of both horizontal and vertical movement. Per Brooks Baseball, Ryu averaged eight inches of horizontal movement on his changeup and seven inches of vertical movement. When a pitch is moving this much in two different directions, it makes it extremely challenging for a hitter to get his barrel on the ball, and this struggle can be seen both in numbers and on film.
Below is a video of one of Ryu’s patented changeups. Evidently, the hitter, in this case, Hunter Renfroe, is unable to keep up with the combination of movement and gets his barrel nowhere near the ball.
For comparison, one of the few other pitchers who can match Ryu’s effectiveness with a changeup is Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer. Interestingly enough, Scherzer throws his changeup in a very different way. Instead of mixing in horizontal and vertical components, Scherzer’s changeup is all vertical movement, where he averages nine inches and only one inch horizontal. Despite this extreme, Scherzer’s changeup halted hitters to just a 21 wRC+ last season. Below is another video, where we can see how drastically different Scherzer’s changeup is in comparison to Ryu’s. Another point to note is that despite the different styles, both pitches clock in at almost the exact same velocity.
While Ryu was tremendous, it does come with an asterisk, as he only pitched 82 innings. Coming into 2019, even with a little bit of regression, he still has the potential to earn the reputation as the Dodgers’ best pitcher. The concern from the Dodgers’ side is that his injury history will continue to slow him down. For Ryu, it’s been more than just arm issues, as he’s also had to deal with groin, hip, and foot problems.
Part of Ryu’s performance last season could have been prompted by his upcoming free agency. Due to his lack of innings, Ryu’s camp did not anticipate to get a large contract on the open market, so he took the one-year qualifying offer for 18 million. Now on a contract year for the second consecutive season, Ryu will be even more motivated to continue his dominance. If he is able to do so over a larger sample size, it is all but guaranteed he will receive a healthy payday.
The Action Network currently has Ryu as +10000 to win the NL Cy Young. This means if you put just $1 on him to win it, your payout would be $100. This is an incredible value, as while he will be turning 32 this season, he has all the boons of a Cy Young candidate. The key will be to stay healthy and piece them all together over the course of the entire season. If still not convinced, word has it Ryu is also working on adding another sneaky weapon to his arsenal.
— Joseph Kim (@blackwings2011) March 1, 2019
All in all, Ryu is on the precipice of a breakout 2019. Usually, that’s not said about someone of his age, but all the tools and the command are there to make it work. Ultimately, his success, as is the case for many pitchers, will boil down to injuries. If he can stay healthy, I see him emerging as the Dodgers’ ace and putting together a Cy Young caliber year. Don’t forget to get those bets in.