Blue Jays Already Basking in Ryu ROI

In spite of everything that was supposed to make the hunt for this postseason more thrilling than ever, the American League playoff field has been pretty much set for quite a while now. The last time a team outside contention had even a 20% chance of reaching the postseason was on September 2, when the Detroit Tigers became the last to fade quietly out of the race. The playoff squad of eight with 99% or better playoff odds contains a bunch of the teams we expected it to, such as the Rays, Yankees, Astros, and A’s. It also includes the Toronto Blue Jays, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2016. Just a year after posting their worst record since 2004, the Blue Jays are contenders thanks to a strong lineup and a surprisingly deep bullpen. Neither of those might have been enough, however, if not for the efforts of left-handed ace Hyun Jin Ryu.

Ryu is 11 starts into a four-year, $80-million contract he signed with Toronto last winter, a deal that carried quite a bit of risk on several levels. He is in his age-33 season, a time that would make a four-year commitment dicey for any pitcher considering how the odds of injury and diminished stuff both head in the wrong direction around then. Indeed, Ryu already faced questions about his health and his arsenal.

He threw a total of just 213.2 innings over four seasons with the Dodgers from 2015-18, dealing with problems in his shoulder, elbow, hip, foot and groin — name a body part, and Ryu has probably missed a couple of starts by pulling it at one time or another. Then there is his fastball velocity, which has for years only rested at about 90 mph. And while he won the ERA title last year, regression already seemed to be setting in over the final couple months of the season. There were enough warning signs present that erstwhile FanGraphs author Kiley McDaniel projected Ryu to land just $32 million on the open market — less than half of what Toronto ultimately signed him for.

We’re just over three years and $60 million away from the Blue Jays being able to call this deal a success, but they have to be happy with what they’ve gotten from him so far. In 60 innings, Ryu owns a 3.00 ERA and 3.02 FIP while currently running career-bests in K/9 (10.2) and groundball rate (53.1%). In terms of value, Ryu is just a shade off Zack Wheeler in having the best year of any 2020 free agent starter.

2020 Free Agent Starting Pitchers
Zack Wheeler Phillies 64.0 2.67 3.23 3.79 1.8
Hyun Jin Ryu Blue Jays 60.0 3.00 3.02 3.06 1.7
Rick Porcello Mets 56.0 5.46 3.15 4.32 1.7
Dallas Keuchel White Sox 57.1 2.04 3.06 3.88 1.6
Gerrit Cole Yankees 66.0 3.00 3.97 3.48 1.3
Kevin Gausman Giants 52.2 3.76 3.43 3.21 1.2
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 59.0 3.05 3.81 4.10 1.2

Of course, this isn’t close to the full list of well-regarded starting pitchers who were eligible for free agency last season. Stephen Strasburg and Cole Hamels are both missing the entire campaign because of injury. Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi have been replacement level this season, and Madison Bumgarner has been worse. Just three pitchers — Cole, Strasburg, and Wheeler — landed larger contracts than Ryu last winter. And he’s done nothing but justify it.

No team has been more in need of Ryu’s services than the one he’s pitching for. His addition was part of an offseason overhaul Toronto made with its rotation, a part of the roster that was held together with paper clips and warm maple syrup in 2019. Twenty-one pitchers started games for the Blue Jays last year, something that does not happen unless all five of your rotation slots are just pictures of pitching coach Pete Walker shrugging. Knowing that, perhaps it’s a bit surprising Toronto was only ninth-worst in rotation ERA last season.

Unfortunately, the improvements the Blue Jays hoped for in 2020 haven’t metabolized. The team ranks 18th in starter ERA and 26th in starter FIP and has once again called upon a long list of names in an effort to find a winning combo.

2020 Blue Jays Starting Pitchers
Hyun Jin Ryu 60.0 10.20 2.25 0.90 53.1% 3.00 3.02 3.06 1.7
Tanner Roark 39.1 8.01 4.81 3.20 35.2% 6.41 7.71 5.82 -0.7
Matt Shoemaker 28.2 8.16 2.83 2.51 48.1% 4.71 5.94 4.12 0.0
Chase Anderson 26.1 8.54 2.73 2.05 40.5% 5.81 5.27 4.36 0.2
Taijuan Walker 23.1 8.10 4.24 1.16 41.4% 1.54 4.60 5.24 0.3
Nate Pearson 16.1 7.71 6.61 2.76 35.4% 6.61 7.65 6.27 -0.2
Robbie Ray 13.1 10.80 6.08 2.03 26.3% 6.75 5.74 5.26 0.0
Ross Stripling 7.2 9.39 5.87 1.17 43.5% 7.04 4.75 4.31 0.1
Trent Thornton 5.2 9.53 4.76 0.00 29.2% 11.12 2.66 5.71 0.2
Julian Merryweather 5.0 10.80 5.40 0.00 45.5% 3.60 2.59 3.74 0.2
Thomas Hatch 2.1 11.57 7.71 0.00 50.0% 0.00 3.19 4.83 0.1

The additions of Roark and Anderson haven’t panned out, Stripling and Ray have had rocky transitions after being acquired at the trade deadline, and Pearson struggled more than expected after his call-up and currently resides on the IL with an elbow injury. Collectively, the non-Ryu contingent has added up to only replacement-level value. The effects of Ryu’s presence here are enormous — Toronto is 8-3 when he starts and 20-23 when anyone else does.

Ryu has maintained his performance from last season by utilizing the same approach that earned him an $80-million guarantee. He doesn’t throw any of his pitches even 30% of the time, relying on a deep mix of fastballs and offspeed stuff to keep hitters off-balance. This is his second-straight season leading with his changeup — a weapon detailed by Michael Augustine here last November — with the pitch taking up a career-high 27.9% of his offerings. On a per-100-pitch basis, Ryu’s changeup was the best in the majors last year as measured by our pitch weights. Those values aren’t always terribly predictive, but in Ryu’s case, he’s actually kept it up, ranking ninth in the same category this year. The pitch has been especially instrumental in helping him achieve his career-high rate of ground balls — the changeup is inducing grounders at a 62.9% clip, the highest its been in any season to date.

Singing nearly as well as Ryu’s changeup is his cutter. In terms of both wOBA (.246) and xwOBA (.209), it’s easily his best-performing fastball, with a whiff rate of 30.3% that is seven points higher than where it was last year. Ryu has leaned on the pitch heavily in his past couple starts, including offering the cutter a season-high 36.4% of the time on Saturday against the Phillies — when he got whiffs on a third of them.

The changes in Ryu’s game from last season to this season are few and far between. Usually that would mean I’m not writing about him, because how much fun is it to read about a guy who’s the same as he always was? But in Ryu’s case, that consistency is noteworthy.

Last year was terrific for Ryu. At 32, he was healthy for the first time in half a decade and set career bests across the board, culminating in a 4.8-WAR season. He became a savant at limiting walks and homers, and he allowed a terrific Dodgers defense to work behind him and help him maintain a BABIP well under .300. That all adds up to a really fun season to watch, but not necessarily the safest pitcher to invest big money in. Injuries could have resurfaced in the first weeks of this season, as they have for so many other pitchers around baseball, or his strikeouts could have dipped another tick while his batted balls regressed.

But one wouldn’t take Ryu for somebody pitching on borrowed time this season. He’s still limiting walks and homers. His whiff rate is the highest of his career. His velocity is down, but only by a few tenths. In many ways, he looks a lot like the guy who placed second in NL Cy Young voting a year ago. That might not be the Ryu many expected this season, but maybe that’s just another way we underestimated Toronto to begin with.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Really glad that Ryu is having a great year. Just amazed after all the injuries that he was able to pitch – let alone as well as he has!