I’d like to introduce you to Hyun-Jin Ryu, fantasy ace. Before you discount what seems like a stretch of a statement, consider that Ryu has been arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball in 2019, and we’re approaching the midpoint of the season. The argument for a small sample size is no longer one that applies. Ryu has been exceptional on the mound for quite a while now actually, but due to a cornucopia of factors: primarily his overstated injury history, his being 32 when the season began, and the amount of talent masking him in the Dodgers rotation, he’s not been viewed like the star he is.
Is Ryu an Injury Risk?
Ryu’s injury-prone label is greatly exaggerated, seemingly rooted in the narrative more so than in stats. With the exception of when he missed almost the entire season in 2016, his innings totals since 2014 (including playoffs) have been: 192 (2014), 158 (2015), 126.2 (2017), and 101.1 (2018). The majority of these injuries in recent years have been lower body ones as well, and while of course, it’s better to not be hurt at all, if a pitcher has to be hurt, it’s preferable for a pitcher to keep them far away from the shoulder and arm. When it comes to discussing the injury risk, another factor to consider is just how incredibly efficient Ryu has been so far this season, after already having been one of the more efficient pitchers in the game last year anyway. He’s regularly going deep in games, but because he’s averaging a touch over 14 pitches per inning (14.21), he’s not laboring through difficult pitch counts every night.
Ryu more often than not isn’t asked to throw over 99 pitches, (only six starts with more than 99 pitches out of 15 total), and while there are dissenting opinions on how to try to preserve pitcher’s health, it remains true that the most difficult pitches for a pitcher occur whenever he approaches his theoretical point of overexertion. It makes sense, of course, most pitchers see their average fastball speed decrease as their pitch count rises. The Dodgers proactively keep Ryu on a relative pitch limit to ensure he is less likely to have his tank run out entirely, and his low pitch counts in each inning allow him to still be successful.
Ryu’s impressive ability to just entirely stop issuing walks is part of what has helped him to be so efficient. His 90:6 K:BB ratio (works out to 15.00) is not only on pace to be the best in the majors by a comfortable margin, but would also be the best of all time by a comfortable amount over the current record held by Phil Hughes at 11.63.
How Is Ryu Doing This?
Ryu will likely never get out of the shadow of Clayton Kershaw in LA, even as Kershaw evolves, and Ryu also isn’t any spring chicken which makes him less buzzy than budding young ace Walker Buehler. But Ryu is arguably comparably talented to both of them, and just about all of the underlying numbers back it up too. Ryu’s arsenal is deep but buoyed by his top two offerings: He’s armed with a fastball and changeup both graded extremely well by Fangraphs at 11.5 wFB and 13.4 wCH, respectively. He has a cutter that he added a couple of years grading out as 3.5 wCT, and a passable slider and curveball grading at -0.4 wSL and -0.9 wCB. Let’s take a quick look at how impressive he makes some of them look.
Here’s Ryu making sure Josh Donaldson knows that his cutter has been good this year:
Here Ryu makes one of the best pure hitters of the past decade look foolish on a… 92 mph fastball in the zone:
And here’s Ryu dotting that changeup down and away to Pirates’ rookie Brian Reynolds:
When a pitcher doesn’t issue free passes, it forces the opposing offense to rely on putting the ball in play to score. Unfortunately for opposing hitters, Ryu has been one of the more difficult pitchers in the game to square up. Despite a fastball that has an unimpressive spin rate and mediocre velocity (even when you consider that it’s coming from a lefty), Ryu ranks well in a host of metrics. Per Baseball Savant, he is in the bottom 12% in both fastball velocity and spin rate, but is slightly above average in the curveball spin rate and K%, both of which place him in the 59th percentile.
Ryu really starts to stand out when you look at how impossible he makes it barrel him up. Per Baseball Savant, he’s suppressing hits to the tune of a .260 batting average on balls in play against him, and in an age of the juiced ball he limits balls leaving the park, he’s at only .64 HR/9. He’s backing them up with his numbers under the hood too, as shown by ranking in the 93rd percentile in exit velocity allowed, and in the 88th percentile in hard-hit percentage.
While it’s tempting to scream regression, especially when considering an unsustainable 89.0% strand rate, Ryu has a lot of room to come back to the mean from his current microscopic 1.29 ERA while still being quite good. His xWOBA (93rd percentile), xSLG (84th percentile), and xBA (60th percentile) are all either above average or elite, and his 2.50 FIP, 2.91 xFIP, and 3.32 SIERA are all sterling as well. Understanding that Ryu has turned in ERAs under all three of the FIP, xFIP, and SIERA figures in both 2017 and 2018 already, it’s very reasonable to think he’s not going to stop doing that now.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s hard to do, but it’s time to start viewing Ryu as the elite starter he is. His ERA hasn’t started with a “2” since 2017, and if he really is a true talent 2.00-2.50 ERA guy who will offer strong WHIP numbers from not walking anybody, while also holding a decent strikeout rate, he’s going to continue to shove. The Dodgers’ offense is a great help as well, as he should enjoy some of the strongest run support in baseball.
Ultimately, Ryu is still a pitcher, and therefore more injury-prone than a position player. He is also on the MLB’s most notorious team for creating phantom DL stints because of a ludicrously deep rotation. If I had to wager, I think what the Dodgers would like to do with Ryu is find a second, short phantom-IL stint in the next couple of weeks, probably right before the All-Star break. This way they can give him a break for a week or two in order to keep him as fresh as possible into August and September’s push, while also making sure there isn’t temptation or pressure to have him throw meaningless pitches in the All-Star game, since he will be a good bet to be on the NL’s staff (if not the potential starter). His next start is scheduled for this Thursday in Colorado, and if he struggles at Coors Field the same way just about all other starters have, it could be a perfect chance to make up a fake injury.
The Dodgers have already gotten creative in finding ways to help Ryu recover and stay fresh, pushing him back one scheduled day last week from Friday to Saturday. If they can get a little luck avoiding any real injury, and Ryu maintains his dominant efficiency and underlying metrics, it is going to be entirely unsurprising when Ryu finishes 2019 as a true Cy Young contender, and one of the elite fantasy aces as well.
(Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire)