For the past calendar year, Hyun-Jin Ryu has been as good -- if not better -- than any starting pitcher in baseball. So why isn’t he getting more hype as a vaunted member of this winter’s relatively underwhelming free-agent class?
The Dodgers’ pitcher is the favorite for this year’s National League Cy Young Award thanks to his 12-3 record and 1.64 ERA in 23 starts, continuing the stellar stretch he began late last summer. Since Aug. 15, 2018, Ryu is 16-6 with a minuscule 1.70 ERA in 201 innings over 32 starts, a remarkable run that is coming at the perfect time for the left-hander, who will hit the free-agent market at the end of the season.
Ryu, who will turn 33 on March 25, will be a free agent for the second straight year -- but unlike 2018, he can’t be extended a qualifying offer for the '20 season, so he’ll be a true free agent in every sense of the word. Ryu didn’t just receive a qualifying offer last November, he accepted it, returning to the Dodgers on a one-year, $17.9 million pact for '19.
Now Ryu is set to hit the market again, this time without Draft-pick compensation attached to him. So why are Gerrit Cole and Madison Bumgarner getting all the hype? For that matter, it seems as though more people are talking about impending free agents Dallas Keuchel and Zack Wheeler than Ryu, who has outperformed every one of the aforementioned pitchers other than Cole, the consensus No. 1 starter on the upcoming market.
“He’s almost a throwback at this point in time,” one NL executive explained. “Dominates without needing to bunch together strikeouts, and doesn’t need to throw 100 mph. He can really pitch; any pitch, any time. He has dominated our guys. I’ve heard people internally state that part of his effectiveness is that he does things differently than most guys these days; different is usually good in baseball. He commands the baseball, doesn’t allow many free bases and really does a tremendous job of throwing off a hitter’s timing. I love watching him pitch because it’s so precise and so unique.”
An American League executive said that when it comes to reputation, others in the upcoming free-agent class have more pedigree than Ryu, even if the recent numbers suggest the opposite should be the case.
“I just don’t think he is viewed in the same light,” an AL talent evaluator said. "If you’re starting a playoff series, I think you’re going with Bumgarner or Keuchel over Ryu. Perception isn’t always reality.”
Nearly every executive who offered an opinion for this story said they like what Ryu brings to the table, though his age and injury history are certainly a key facet of his free-agent resume.
Ryu has been on the injured list nine times since coming to the Majors in 2013, including a two-year stretch from '15-16 in which he threw a total of 4 2/3 innings because of left shoulder and elbow injuries. He's had two stints on the IL this season (a sore neck kept him out for 10 days earlier this month), putting him on track to potentially reach the 190-inning mark for the first time since '13, his first year in the Majors.
“His ability to perform when on the field is strong; pounds the strike zone, keeps the ball in the park,” an American League general manager said. “Knowing how many innings a team can bank is another thing entirely. Every team will weigh [his age] differently, but it won’t be unnoticed.”
“The age is the only thing that gets tricky,” the NL executive said. “He’s probably No. 2 if his contract ask is reasonable ... and there are a few guys with options that would change the landscape if they were available. This could be an interesting class to watch. It might be one of those years where teams rank guys differently based on who they like.”
Ryu’s ascent into the upper echelon of the league’s starters -- he started this year’s All-Star Game for the NL -- has coincided with a change in his arsenal. He’s used his changeup 28% of the time this season, matching the usage of his four-seam fastball. A year ago, his changeup accounted for only 19% of his pitches, while he utilized his curveball, cutter and four-seamer more than he has in 2019. Whatever he’s doing, it appears to be working.
“He doesn’t have electric stuff, but he has a solid repertoire that he commands,” an AL executive said. “And he really knows how to mix.”
Ryu doesn’t have the same overpowering stuff as Cole, who has a 2.87 ERA and 502 strikeouts in 357 innings since joining the Astros before the 2018 season. Cole, who is three and a half years younger than Ryu, will rightfully be the crown jewel of this year’s free-agent class, but while teams consider bigger “names” such as Bumgarner and Keuchel (who, like Ryu, can’t be extended a qualifying offer this year), Ryu could benefit from flying below the radar.
"High-level pitching is pretty good for this free-agent class,” one AL talent evaluator said. “I think he may actually be viewed slightly lower than some in that group perceptually, and therefore, sign earlier. I can see Ryu signing ahead of them and jumping the market and actually getting a better deal. I think the other guys may wait longer, and waiting longer hasn’t always paid off."