How Hyun-Jin Ryu found himself starting this year’s All Star Game

For this year’s All-Star Game in Cleveland, the starting pitcher for the National League was Hyun-Jin Ryu. A left-handed pitcher from South Korea and he became the first player from his country to start an MLB All-Star Game. He has been in the league since 2013 but was never as good as he has been so far this season. Currently, he ranks fifth best in all of baseball in FIP among qualified pitchers. By no means did anyone expect this level of effectiveness from him. However, here we are, Ryu not only started the All-Star game but he pitched well. After giving up a leadoff single to George Springer, he got three straight ground balls when facing DJ LeMahieu, Mike Trout, and Carlos Santana. So, Ryu’s success is not just a secret to Dodger’s fans now. It out there for the whole world to see and you can bet that everyone is going to be watching him for the rest of the season to see just how good he can be.

So, how did he get here? Ryu had a very good 2018 season with a 1.97 ERA so maybe this should’ve been expected. He only pitched 82.1 innings though, as he spent most of last season on the IL with a left groin strain. Still, the innings he did pitch in were productive and 82.1 innings is not a small sample size. Throughout his career, he has never really had a bad year and his stats do rank towards the top of the league.

Image via ABC7

For his first two seasons in the league, he ranked in the top 25 out of all of baseball in FIP among pitchers who had thrown at least 150 innings. He’s never been considered to be such a dominant pitcher though. This year was his first bid to the All-Star Game and he has no other awards throughout his career. One other interesting part about Ryu’s career is that he is in his age 32 season. It seems like such a high number for how little it feels that he’s been in Major League Baseball. You do see this trend though with international players, especially those that come from Asia. They first establish themselves in a different league before signing with an MLB team.

My conclusion about Ryu’s journey from international free agent to All-Star is that he’s always been one of the better pitchers in the league but has never received the recognition for it. It makes sense though because his stardom doesn’t hold up to Kershaw or Buehler. We also can’t forget that Greinke was in Los Angeles for most of Ryu’s career. He plays in a big market but behind some of the best pitchers in the league. It doesn’t stop there either because he also plays alongside players like Cody Bellinger and so many other all-stars year in and year out. Simply, Ryu has always been really good but it took starting the All-Star Game for him to get the recognition he deserves.

Now, Ryu is on the big stage with everyone watching him to see if he can continue this success. I think his success is sustainable too. When you look at his career numbers, he’s been really good which you now know as I have already expressed that earlier in this article. If Ryu hadn’t recorded such impressive numbers year after year, I would have serious doubts about his future. There are two reasons as to why I say that. One, his fastball velocity ranks in the 10th percentile in all of baseball. Second, his fastball spin rate ranks in the 12th percentile in all of baseball. So basically, his fastball is not good, to put it nicely. His curveball spin rate isn’t impressive either, it ranks in the 60th percentile. If you’re now confused as to how he’s so good, just wait. Here is the worst one yet: his K% ranks in the 56th percentile. After looking at all of those numbers I don’t understand how he’s even able to make the All-Star Team, let alone start the game.

Thankfully, baseball has so many metrics now so we can understand how Ryu is so dominant because when we look at the metrics on his pitches, they’re not good. However, it’s the combination of all of his pitches and how he uses them that he is so good. He uses all of those pitches together to force weak contact and get outs. Ryu ranks in the 94th percentile of exit velocity and in the 89th percentile of Hard Hit%. Hopefully, those numbers don’t scare you away like the previous ones that I rattled off. Ryu is good and now you can start to see how he finds success.

Ryu is a unique pitcher because he isn’t following the trend of throwing a 93 mph fastball paired with a hard slider in the 80 mph range that lives or dies by the strikeout. He is his own type of pitcher that produces weak contact and does not walk hitters. He sticks to what he knows works and doesn’t change his pitching style based on what the league may think works.

There is though one part of Ryu’s game that he changed to make a big step this season. He increased the usage of his changeup and sinker while taking away using his curveball and cutter so often. Take a look below to see these changes.

Data via Baseball Savant

I believe that it was these changes that took him to a new level. A level that earns you the role of being named the National League starting pitcher for the All-Star Game. To predict if his success is going to be sustainable or not is a very hard question to answer considering all of Ryu’s factors. He is 32 years old which is usually past a player’s peak but seems to be Ryu’s exact peak. Pitchers who don’t rack up strikeouts also don’t tend to have a very long peak. So I want to say that his reign isn’t going to last much longer but he has never actually been ineffective in his career.

All of these factors considered makes it hard to draw a conclusion. However, I won’t end an article open-ended so I do believe he will continue his success. Not to the scale that he is currently performing at but still enough to be considered a top 25 pitcher in all of baseball. His peak will be limited though and I believe that he will only stay at such a high level for a couple of years. From there, he will regress but to what extent is yet to be seen. He is a valuable asset to the Dodgers and will be for years to come. Maybe his jump in performance will help the Dodgers finally win a World Series. I seriously doubt it, but it wouldn’t be the first time Ryu will have surprised us.

Sources Include Baseball Savant, FanGraphs, and Baseball Reference