I volunteered for this assignment, which if you knew me, would be considered a very extraordinary event. Just to give you some context, I find it difficult to volunteer out of bed. But I feel, scratch that, I know I have a compelling reason to write of our subject and I would like to share that reason with you, the reader. That reason is because… I am half-Korean. Dun-Dun-DUN!
My half-white side is Irish, but physically, is more like a grizzled Canadian trapper with frostbit toes wearing a bearskin coat. Combine that with my Korean side, which spoils cabbage in copious amounts, well then, you are now seeing the beauty that is me. Also, ef the armistice, ain’t nobody got time for that.
That’s how you and I have met at this wondrous place. Having a unique perspective (being the same race, err, sorta) might help frame the subject of today’s post, for you, the readership. THAT’S RAYCESS!!
Now, a lot has been put out there about Hyun-jin Ryu*, and quite frankly, there is a lot of volatility on where the consensus lands. Is he a bullpen piece? A number 3 starter? An ace? A back-end pitcher? Obviously, we can make a long story short and throw a dart in the middle and call it a day. But I want the beefy middle part. I want the what AND the why. Why, you may ask. Why samgyeopsal son! Yeah, okay, you’re right. BBQ Pork belly is not really a reason. But it is a scrumptious digression.
*Please note, in Korea, surnames are actually used as the first name. So the correct connotation for Hyun-jin Ryu would be Ryu Hyun-jin. But since we’re in America, we’ll play it fast, hard, and with diabetes.
First, let’s establish some rapport with our subject. Ryu, nicknamed Dr. K, since all Korean mother’s want their children to either be a Doctor or a Lawyer, totally not a fantasy baseball writer, is a left-handed pitcher standing at 6-1 and a wide 215 lbs. He’ll be 27 on opening day and was one of the best pitchers in Korean history. Ryu is a seven-time KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) All-Star, a ROY winner, and an MVP winner. There are different summations on what the level of competition the KBO can be compared to, but the most generally accepted equivalent is something in between the MLB Single-A and Double-A talent levels. Just like how the NPB’s (Nippon Baseball League) equivalent would be around the MLB Triple-A level. These are loose comparisons, to be sure, but it can give us a general idea of what the environment was, and how well that talent might translate to the MLB.
As far as his repertoire, Ryu has an excellent change-up to go along with a good curveball and average slider. His fastball velocity sits in the 87-92 range, and while its been reported he can get it up to 95 in certain instances, I doubt you’ll see him get out of the high 80’s much. He does have a smooth and clean delivery, which bodes well for his health. Ryu had Tommy John surgery in High School, but there haven’t been any reports of significant injuries otherwise.
So that’s the who, now’s the what and why.
Really quick, let’s get that dirty elephant out of the living room. Unless you like it, which would make you weird and odor averse. If so, watch for crazy hobo’s as they can sense that in you. I know people are concerned over the Ted Lilly vs. Hyun-jin Ryu battle extravaganza for a spot in the rotation that’s waging right now. Trust me, the Dodgers didn’t pay Ryu $36 million to play second fiddle to Ronald Belisario. Plus, my grandmother could beat Lilly out for that spot, and she’s been dead for 10 years. For what its worth, he is being projected as the #3 starter as of this writing. In addition, as part of this obligatory really quick things to talk about that really have no forbearance on the situation, but you’ll want to know anyhow section, we shouldn’t make comps that Ryu is the next Yu Darvish. He’s not even the next Daisuke Matsuzaka, though I think he’ll be measurably better than Dice-K. He’s not even Wei-Yin Chen, but that comp may have a better case if expounded upon. And no, he is not Chan Ho Park. Truth be told, whenever you read something like that out there on the inter-webs, know that it’s lazy analysis. The only concrete thing these players have in common is that they have epicanthic folds. So let’s go about this the right way.
What are the naysayers spouting anyways? Well, basically, the fastball won’t play in the Major Leagues, and that will limit his upside and transition. That’s okay, it’s a fair argument. But what we are forgetting is that control plays anywhere. If he can locate his fastball, his off-speed stuff plays. And, since he already has the ability to keep the ball in the ballpark, these things are a good recipe for success on a global level. Just to show you some data on his elite control, take a look at my nifty chart, which will illuminate his last three years in the KBO.
Note: The innings total in 2011 might lead to the conclusion that he was injured, but all I could find in my research was the Hanwa Eagles were trying to limit his innings. If there was an injury, 2012 was a good indicator that all was well. He has made no fewer than 25 starts and no fewer than 165 IP in his career besides that outlier.
It’s interesting, since when you try to think of legitimate comps, only one guy screams, or in this case, eats and drinks beer, in my mind, and that’s David Wells. Now, Ryu is pretty stocky, but he has nothing on a 6-3, 248 lbs David Wells. That’s a two-inch and 30-pound difference, which geometrically equates to Warwick Davis. Hey, 25th anniversary son! What’s up? (Which means that if you are talking with a 20-year-old, they know not of Willow. I’ll let that sink in for the older audience out there.) The kicker here is that Wells was able to have sustained success and carve up a pretty nice career with a fastball that topped out around 87 mph, an excellent change-up, a good curveball, and an average slider. Sound familiar? INCEPTION BWWWAAAHMMM! (You know you want to hear it for realz.)
And to drive the point that Ryu could call Wells a brother from another mother, take a look at these GIFs. Yes, that was no typo. WE HAVE MUTHAFUDGIN GIFS NOW! AWWWW YEAAAH! That was me having a word-gasm there. I would apologize, but I always aim for the hair, so, you know, use the appropriate conditioner.
Comparison #1 – Fastballs look fast if you set them up properly. THIS CANNOT BE DENIED!
Comparison #2 – Curves are like peaches. I can eat a peach for hours.
Note: If these images look pixelated to you, say ‘enhance’ a few times into your monitor and the resolution will get better.
So now that we have a comp, the image of what Ryu can do becomes that much clearer. If you didn’t listen to the last podcast, I described Ryu as a David Wells clone, circa 1997-2000. No, you don’t have to look those stats up, I’ll help you out, but just this once. When you make a David Wells sandwich out of those 4 years, which I’m sure he would eat, since I’m sure if he was a hot dog, he’d eat himself in that format too. But if you take those years, he pretty much was a 200 inning work horse that provided a high-3 ERA, 15 wins, and 140 K’s.
But there is something here to ponder upon before we reach a final verdict — Wells pitched in a different run-environment in several aspects. First, he pitched in the AL and dealt with the DH. Ryu does not. Second, during the Wells era, he had to face Ken Griffey Jr. and Albert Belle, who combined to hit 105 HR’s in 1998. We are certainly in a different offensive era. I doubt you could point to any two players right now and project 100+ HR’s. And, thirdly, as the special cherry on top, Ryu gets to pitch in a division that has two ballparks that deflate offense in an extreme manner (AT&T and PetCo), and a home park that deflates offense at a slightly above average clip. Heck, Coors might not even hurt him that much, since when on, he induces weak contact and fly-balls combined with good control. Three things you can actually survive with in altitude.
What does that leave us with? I’m glad we’re finally here. Hyun-jin Ryu is a mystery, no doubt. But using the markers we’ve set, even with somewhat arbitrary methods, we can at least try to surmise what is to come. And we should also try to accept the concept that a big fish in a small pond isn’t necessarily a small fish in a bigger pond. So here’s me putting skin into the game. If he is who I think he is, expect: 13-10/3.59/1.24/168. You know what I think that makes him? A mid-rotation starter. BAM!