Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg get most of the hype in this year’s pitching free agent crop. But even though those two are the stars of the show, this is one of the deeper classes of free agent starters in recent memory. Hyun-Jin Ryu, the longtime Dodger, is coming off a spectacular 2019 campaign in which he almost won the Cy Young award. Not a bad time to be a free agent, huh?
Ryu hails from South Korea, where he spent the beginning of his professional baseball career. The southpaw spent his entire KBO career with the team that drafted him: the Hanwha Eagles. He debuted there in 2006 as a 19 year-old and was an ace from the very beginning. From then through 2012, Ryu dominated the KBO and filled up his trophy case with numerous accolades.
Following the 2012 campaign, Hanwha posted Ryu for bidding. The Dodgers had the winning bid, $25.7 million, and received exclusive negotiating rights with the lefty. The two sides finalized a six year, $36 million contract for the next stage of his career in Los Angeles.
After his initial deal with the Dodgers expired after the 2018 season, Ryu was set to become a free agent for the first time. However, the Dodgers slapped a $17.9 million qualifying offer on him. Ryu accepted, perhaps wisely so given the slow-moving market last winter. He had an excellent campaign for the Dodgers in 2019, and is now a free agent again. But this time, he’s free of the qualifying offer as a player cannot be offered it twice. A reunion with the Dodgers seems pretty likely, but he’s still a coveted free agent nonetheless.
Ryu had a very successful career in the KBO, but perhaps his best campaign was his rookie season. In 201 2/3 frames, Ryu went 18-6 with a 2.23 ERA. That was good for the league’s pitching triple crown, so he unsurprisingly not only won the rookie of the year award, but league MVP as well.
As Ryu’s career in his home country went on, he continued to rack up awards and lead the league in various categories. He was an All-Star each and every season, won a couple of Gold Glove awards, and led the league in strikeouts multiple times. Overall, he recorded a 2.80 ERA in 1,269 innings over seven seasons before jumping to the US.
Ryu had a seamless transition to the Dodgers in 2013. He was still just 26 years-old in his first season in LA, but was great: he threw 192 innings of 3.00 ERA ball and finished fourth in rookie of the year voting. He was similarly good in year two, but ran into health issues thereafter. Ryu missed all of 2015 and made just one start in 2016 because of a variety of injuries which I’ll get to in a bit.
Ryu returned in 2017 and pitched in 25 games (24 starts). He was good (3.77 ERA), but not great (4.74 FIP). The southpaw lost some of his trademark control; he walked 8.3 percent of batters faced after walking just 6.3 percent and 4.6 percent in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
In 2018, Ryu rebounded, albeit in just 15 starts around more health woes. He posted a 1.97 ERA, regained his control (4.6 percent walk rate), and missed bats more than ever (27.5 percent strikeout rate). He followed that up with more excellence this season: a 2.32 ERA in 29 starts and 182 2/3 innings pitched. That performance was good enough to be the Cy Young runner-up to Jacob deGrom. As an impending free agent, it was quite a good time for him to not only pitch a full season, but also dominate while doing so.
What’s made Ryu so effective, aside from control, is his ability to keep the ball in the yard. His career home runs allowed per nine innings is 0.88. Even more impressive is that he’s maintained this in the juiced ball era. He’s a ground ball pitcher who doesn’t allow a lot of hard contact, which has allowed him to succeed even as the league has tilted toward hitters.
In addition to the regular season numbers, Ryu’s pitched quite a bit in the postseason too. His numbers are a bit more of a mixed bag: in eight October starts, the 32 year-old has pitched to a 4.05 ERA in 40 innings. He got off to a strong start in postseason play, as the Dodgers won three of his first four starts in which he recorded a 1.96 ERA. But since then, he’s been less effective. He’s had a couple of duds, including Game 6 of the 2018 NLCS and Game 2 of the World Series that year.
Ryu isn’t a power pitcher. His fastball and sinker averaged just below 91 miles per hour in 2019. That velocity has been pretty steady ever since he came stateside, too. Given his mediocre velocity, it should come as no surprise that Ryu relies on movement and control more than anything else. Here’s a breakdown of his pitch usage in 2019 per Statcast:
- Four-seamer: 90.7 MPH (27.3%)
- Sinker: 90.1 MPH (13.3%)
- Cutter: 87.0 MPH (19.4%)
- Changeup: 80.0 MPH (27.5%)
- Curveball: 72.7 MPH (12.2%)
- Slider: 80.1 MPH (0.3%)
So, Ryu isn’t going to blow opponents away with velocity. He doesn’t have remarkable spin rate or movement either. But even so, thanks to his impeccable control and excellent mix of pitches, he garners plenty of weak contact. All the while still racking up respectable strikeout numbers.
From a personal standpoint, I find Ryu to be a joy to watch. It’s fun to watch him spin off a slow curveball, for instance. It’s also a pleasure to watch him lull opponents to sleep with ground ball after ground ball:
51 Seconds of Hyun-Jin Ryu Ground Balls from Last Night. pic.twitter.com/MxWmUOrP7t— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 5, 2019
This is where things get dicey. Ryu had Tommy John surgery as a high schooler, though was quite durable thereafter before coming over to the US. He also avoided the disabled list in his first season with the Dodgers, but he started to break down in year two.
Shoulder inflammation and a hip strain sent him to the disabled list on two separate occasions in 2014, though neither of the stints were much longer than two weeks.
As noted earlier, Ryu didn’t pitch in 2015. He first hit the shelf with a shoulder impingement to start the year, but later had surgery in May to repair his labrum. He didn’t return until July of 2016, when he made just one start before he was sidelined again. This time, it was elbow tendinitis. He had debridement surgery in September.
Finally, in 2017, Ryu again spent extended time in the Dodgers’ rotation. He did hit the disabled list a couple of times, but not for arm injuries. This time, it was hip and foot injuries that deactivated him.
In 2018, Ryu missed a good chunk of the season again. In this case, a groin strain kept him off the field from early May to mid-August. This season, the lefty made two more trips to the injured list, but for nothing severe. His groin kept him out for 10 days in April and some neck soreness briefly kept him aside in August.
Fangraphs’ median crowdsource projection calls for a three year, $48 million deal. MLB Trade Rumors calls for the same term, but instead for $54 million. The Athletic’s Jim Bowden predicts three years and $55.5 million. In spite of some excellent numbers, Ryu’s checkered medical records clearly hinder his ability to really cash in.
Scott Boras is Ryu’s agent, meaning that he could be marketed alongside Boras’s top pitching clients this winter in Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Ryu himself has said he would like a three or four year deal while also seeming welcome to playing with fellow countryman Shin-Soo Choo of the Rangers. In any event, I still anticipate a reunion with the Dodgers.
Does he make sense for the Yankees?
Yes, with a caveat: he shouldn’t be the Yankees’ top prize this winter. Now, he’s undoubtedly an excellent pitcher and capable of being a frontline guy, but his health is too big of a concern to pencil him in for 30 starts annually. Pair him with a Cole or Strasburg, and now we’re talking.
Though his medical history worries me, I really love Ryu’s ability to generate weak contact while throwing plenty of strikes. His ability to prevent home runs makes him incredibly valuable in a time where the ball is flying out of the yard. So, I’d be thrilled to have him in the Bronx for the next few years, but moreso as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, not a one or two.