After starting the off season and cruising through the Winter Meetings touting the rounds of “aggressive” offers they had made to available free agent starting pitchers, the Toronto Blue Jays finally put their money where their proverbial mouth is by announcing the signing of Hyun-Jin Ryu.
The deal, worth a total of $80 million over the next four years, is the second largest contract ever handed out to a free agent by the Blue Jays, behind Russell Martin’s five-year, $82 million contract in November 2014.
In Ryu, the Blue Jays have found their much sought-after bona fide number one starter, an ace capable of carrying a pitching staff that otherwise has a fairly low ceiling. He’s not without his wrinkles, of course, but the team is betting that the positive impact he can provide will more than fill in for the possible pitfalls.
Simply put, when Ryu is healthy he has been one of the best starting pitchers in all of baseball. His 2.32 ERA last season was the best league wide, better than the mark posted by fellow 2019 free agents and newly minted super-rich starters Gerritt Cole and Stephen Strasburg. His ERA numbers look impressive no matter how far out you choose to zoom, with a 2.98 mark over 125 starts in six major league seasons.
Part of what makes him so impressive is that Ryu succeeds without the traditional tools that get analysts drooling, pumping in 8th percentile fastball velocity with an average speed of 90.7 mph. Instead, he thrives with variety and pinpoint control. He throws six pitches — fastball, cutter, sinker, slider, curveball, and change — keeping hitters off balance by throwing five of them at least 12% of the time. He’s also stingy with free passes, with a 3.3% walk rate that was second lowest in all of baseball.
“The more that we dug into Ryu and spent time learning about him the more excited we got and the more exceptional he became to us,” general manager Ross Atkins said in the introductory press conference. “His ability to command the ball so exceptionally well, get outs at every quadrant of the zone with four different pitches, insane athleticism and ability on the field was something exceptional to watch.”
In an era where balls are flying over the fence at historic rates, Ryu keeps the ball in the yard at an elite rate. His 0.84 HR/9 was fourth best in the major leagues last season, a product of being in the top 4% of average exit velocity allowed. These traits will come in handy when he makes his new home in fly-ball friendly Rogers Centre and in the new competition of the AL East, but the peripherals at least offer optimism that he should be able to quiet some of the league’s heavier bats on a regular basis.
This is all a number of different ways to say that Ryu was really, really good in 2019, and has been at least ‘very good’ every time he has put together an extended run of health in the major leagues. He was worth 4.8 WAR per FanGraphs last year, putting him well ahead of any of the other arms occupying spots in the Blue Jays rotation.
Additionally, reviews from former Dodgers fans, media, and players give glowing reviews of Ryu as a person and a teammate.
“It really just kept getting better and better. We were already extremely encouraged about his influences in clubhouse and influences on people as a man off the field,” Atkins said. “We reached out to teammates before and after the signing and the story has remained the same.”
For a team with a core made up of young players still in their first years in the league, Ryu represents a leader who has plenty of experience in winning clubhouses and around young players as part of a winning core. The Blue Jays are betting that he can bring that same presence that saw the emergence of players like Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, and Joc Pederson to players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio.
The unfortunate qualifier of “Ryu is one of the best in baseball when healthy” is, of course, that he has a history of not being all that healthy.
After missing all of the 2015 season due to left shoulder surgery, he made only one start in 2016 before succumbing to elbow tendinitis. He got injured twice again in 2017, with a left hip contusion and then a left foot contusion. The woes struck again in 2018, where a left groin strain in May landed him on the 60-day injured list. Even in 2019, where he pitched the most innings he had since his rookie year, he made two trips to the injured list; another groin strain in April and neck soreness in August.
All in all, Ryu has managed to throw more than 150 innings only three times, with just one of those seasons coming after his totally erased 2015.
It was less of a concern for the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers to pick up the slack when Ryu missed time, with generational talent Clayton Kershaw at the top of the rotation and studs like Walker Buehler or acquisitions like Rich Hill constantly filtering into to a perennial contender. In Toronto, Ryu is not only being looked to as the anchor of the staff, he is the only name that is a sure thing to perform above even a league average level.
The Blue Jays have done work to fill out the bottom part of the rotation with low-ceiling / high-floor names like Chase Anderson and Tanner Roark, but Ryu’s absence will be felt if he misses time in his new home.
After generating little more than a dismissive wave from the talk they talked at the Winter Meetings, the Blue Jays are at the very least walking the walk with this move.
They came into the offseason with very specific needs and have done an admirable job addressing them. The additions of Roark and Anderson raised the floor on the depth of the rotation and now Ryu’s addition gives a chance to raise the ceiling as well. Nobody will confuse them as a team destined to be the favourite in the American League quite yet, but it sends a clear message that the team has plans for 2020 beyond just being another development year for their prospects.
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