‘Korean Monster’ remains competitive in the big leagues after shoulder and elbow surgery
Great American Ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds, opened in 2003 and is considered one of the most hitter-friendly stadiums in Major League Baseball due to its size and the way the wind blows from home to the outfield. In fact, the Great American Ballpark is the third most hitter-friendly and pitcher-unfriendly ballpark in baseball after Coors Field, 안전놀이터 which is known as the “graveyard of pitchers,” and Fenway Park, which is more than 100 years old.
In the game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds on the 21st, both teams combined for six home runs and 13 long balls. However, Toronto starter Hyun-jin Ryu, making his first start on the mound at Great American Ball Park in four years and three months since 20 May 2019 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, held the Cincinnati bats to just four hits, one walk, seven strikeouts and two unearned runs. The Cincinnati bats failed to hit a single long ball against Ryu, let alone a home run.
Ryu, who has thrown 14 consecutive scoreless innings in his last three outings, has lowered his ERA to 1.89 from 7.20 when he completed his big league return. In just four games since his return, he has regained his form as Toronto’s ace. Ryu, who has undergone two major surgeries since reaching the big leagues, has made changes to his pitching style each time he has returned from surgery, transforming himself into a more elusive pitcher who is harder for hitters to target.
Hyun-jin Ryu pitches against Chicago Cubs Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu pitches against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning of their Major League Baseball (MLB) home game at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2018. Ryu pitched five innings, allowing two runs (unearned) on two hits and two walks in the Blue Jays’ 11-4 victory.
Ryu’s changeup was one of the best in the big leagues
Ryu Hyun-jin was one of the league’s best power pitchers, winning the strikeout title five times in his seven years in the KBO. But when he joined the Dodgers for the 2013 season, he became a pitcher with a slower-than-major league average fastball. At the time, the Dodgers had a stellar starting rotation that included Cy Young Award-winning one-two punchers Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, as well as Chris Capuano, Josh Beckett, and Ted Lilly.
However, after starting the season as the fifth starter, Hyun-jin Ryu steadied himself and won 14 games in back-to-back seasons in 2013 and 2014 to become the Dodgers’ third starter behind Kershaw and Greinke. Most importantly, the Dodgers benefited from his steady rotation, as he pitched 152 innings in 2014 after 192 in 2013. Ryu has proven that he doesn’t need to change his pitching style much from his KBO days to be effective in the majors.
Early in his major league career, Hyun-jin Ryu relied heavily on his fastball and changeup, interspersed with curveballs and sliders. His changeup, which can hang in the corners of the strike zone and drop in and out of the strike zone, has been compared to the changeup of four-time National League All-Star and 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels. The powerful changeup was the key to Ryu’s success against the big league’s top right-handed hitters.
His fastball, which averaged between 145 and 148 kilometres per hour and topped out between 150 and 153 kilometres per hour, was also competitive enough. Of course, it doesn’t compare to a fastball pitcher like Aroldis Chapman (Texas Rangers), who throws in excess of 160 kilometres per hour, but Ryu’s fastball, mixed with his changeup, is fast enough for major league hitters. The combination of his fastball and changeup made him an elite starter in the big leagues for two years.
Shoulder surgery and a cutter later in life
However, after seven years and 1,269 innings in the KBO and two years and 344 innings in the major leagues, something was wrong with his shoulder, and in May of that year, he underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery. It’s not an easy surgery to have, with 58.2 per cent (39) of the 67 players who underwent the procedure in the decade since 2002 retiring after throwing less than 50 innings. In fact, Ryu threw just 4.2 innings per game in the two seasons after his surgery.
Ryu returned to the big league mound in 2017, but posted a mediocre 5-9 record with a 3.77 ERA in 25 games. To make matters worse, he got off to a strong start in 2018, going 3-0 with a 2.12 ERA, before leaving a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on 3 May with a left groin injury in the second inning. After what seemed like a string of bad luck, Ryu returned in August of that year with a new weapon, a “cutter,” that opened the door to a second prime.
He made a perfect comeback on 16 August 2018 with a six-hit, six-strikeout performance against the San Francisco Giants, and in the second half of 2018 alone, he went 4-3 with a 1.88 ERA in nine games. In 2019, he went 14-5 with a 2.32 ERA, leading the majors in ERA, being named a National League All-Star, and finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting. Ryu continued to be one of the best pitchers in the league in 2020, when he moved to Toronto and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting.
The key to Ryu’s return to form after shoulder surgery was the power of his new cutter. By increasing the percentage of his fastball, which is similar in velocity to his changeup, Ryu confused hitters by giving them four different options. More importantly, Ryu was able to fool hitters by changing the velocity and location of the same pitch, making him one of the rare players to perform better after shoulder surgery.
Ryu throws more curveballs, and it pays off
Reconstructing the medial ligament of the elbow, known as the “Tommy John surgery” after the first pitcher to undergo it, used to be a life-and-death proposition. Nowadays, thanks to medical advances, it’s a procedure that has a pretty good chance of success if the rehabilitation process goes well. In fact, there are many pitchers who have benefited from increased velocity after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Ryu Hyun-jin, who underwent the procedure when he was a sophomore at Dong San High School, is one of the most famous pitchers to have improved his delivery after the surgery.
However, after undergoing Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career last year, Ryu didn’t see a dramatic increase in velocity this time around. Instead, his velocity dropped, making his pitches easier for opposing hitters to hit. In his comeback game against the Baltimore Orioles, where he lost in five innings and four runs, Ryu changed his pitching pattern from his second start. He started using less of his fastball and more of his “slower” pitches to take the timing out of his opponents.
The results have been spectacular, as Ryu has been able to use his fastball less and his curveball more, and his pitches have improved dramatically. In fact, after allowing 10 hard hits (well-hit balls over 95 mph) in five innings against the Baltimore Orioles on the 2nd, Ryu has allowed just six hard hits in 14 innings over his last three games. This means that opposing hitters have not been able to time his slower pitches at all.
We don’t know if Ryu is no longer able to throw his fastball after his elbow surgery, or if he’s “sealed” his not-quite-perfect fastball for the performance ahead. What is clear, however, is that Ryu has become one of the slowest pitchers in the major leagues and is still very competitive this year, and baseball fans are still enjoying watching the “10,000-lap pitcher” give pitching lessons to opposing hitters every game.