Hyun-Jin Ryu isn’t the best Dodger starter, because Clayton Kershaw exists. He’s not the second-best Dodger starter, because Zack Greinke exists. If you can’t even make a case for being one of the two best starters on your own team, it’s going to be very difficult to make the case that you’re one of the better starters in the game. “No. 3 starter” just doesn’t have that much appeal to it, as recent third bananas like Doug Fister or Anibal Sanchez can attest to.
Being fortunate — or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it — enough to be paired with the truly elite starters in the game shouldn’t affect how you’re viewed, of course. Any player should be judged on his own merits and compared to the full population of pitchers, not just those who happen to share a clubhouse. In the same way that it’s foolish to think that Maikel Franco and Addison Russell are equal players just because they are ranked as the No. 2 prospect for their respective franchises, you can’t assume that Ryu and, say, Ricky Nolasco are of equal value because they’re the third-best starter on their team.
All of which is a long way of getting to the point, which is this: Ryu has proven himself to be one of baseball’s outstanding pitchers in his two seasons in America, and none of us — us here at FanGraphs included, unfortunately — seem to talk about him that way.
When the Dodgers spent over $60 million on Ryu in late 2012 ($25.7 in a posting fee, and $36 million over six years), it wasn’t like when Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka came over from Asia as top pitchers expected to succeed in America. Worried by questions about velocity and secondary pitches aside from his outstanding change, many saw Ryu as a future reliever. Writing here at the time, Eno Sarris summed up some of the questions about Ryu:
He throws four pitches, yes, but by most accounts, his slider is not exciting and his curveball may just be a lefty-on-lefty type of pitch that won’t solve a platoon issue if righties like his changeup.
See where this is going? Doubt. If you are as friendly as possible to the Dodgers, you still can’t erase that overwhelming sense of doubt that surrounds the confident, smiling young Korean. Let’s say you use $5.5 million per win this season, and then, as you eye that $1.5 billion in new TV money coming towards the existing $3 billion in player salaries, you say that the price per win will rocket forward 25% in 2014. Settle back in around 10% inflation, and you get dollars per win that look like this over the next few years: $5.5, $6.9, $7.6, $8.3, $9.2, $10.1. Ryu would still have to be worth over a win and a third per season to be worth $60 million, and that’s a feat only ten relievers have managed in the last six years.
Two years later, you might say that this has turned out pretty well for both Ryu and the Dodgers, who have received 6.6 wins, one of the 25 best marks in baseball. Start with the 2014 FIP leaders, min. 150 innings:
- Clayton Kershaw, 1.81 (!)
- Jake Arrieta, 2.26
- Corey Kluber, 2.35
- Felix Hernandez, 2.56
- Chris Sale, 2.57
- Garrett Richards, 2.60
- Ryu, 2.62
Think about all of the incredible pitchers around the game — David Price, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels and on and on — not mentioned there. Now let’s do that over Ryu’s two seasons in the bigs, minimum 300 innings:
- Kershaw, 2.12
- Sanchez, 2.52
- Hernandez, 2.58
- Adam Wainwright, 2.71
- Kluber, 2.71
- Scherzer, 2.79
- Cliff Lee, 2.86
- Price, 2.88
- Sale, 2.91
- Ryu, 2.97
By FIP, Ryu has been a top-10 pitcher over the last two seasons. Absolutely no one thinks of him that way, in part due to Kershaw and Greinke, and in part, not unfairly, because he threw only 152 innings in 2014 due to multiple stints on the disabled list.
Still, let’s share a few charts. The first is intended to show improvement, in that Ryu’s successful first big league season was more than backed up by his second. There were 58 starting pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in both 2013 and 2014, the two seasons that Ryu has been in the big leagues. That includes an interesting cross-section of pitchers, really. There’s all of the usual pitching superstars at the top, but there’s also veterans like Dan Haren and Kevin Correia, up-and-comers like Dallas Keuchel & Wade Miley, and whatever it is you consider Roberto Hernandez to be.
Of those 158, only six improved in all three of strikeout percentage, walk percentage, and HR/9. But, as you’ll see below, it’s really more like four, because two of those six appear on this list only because I didn’t feel right about pretending they didn’t exist:
|2013/14, min. 150 IP,
improved K%, BB%, HR/9
|Season||Name||ERA||FIP||K%||BB%||HR/9||K% +||BB% –||HR/9 –|
Iwakuma and Leake are there because the numbers demand that they be, but -0.01 is such a statistically insignificant figure that it’s not so much “improvement” as it is “holding steady.” Gonzalez’ season probably deserves a look of its own, because despite a relatively similar season in these three areas, his FIP went up and his ERA went down, and Guthrie started from a lower base in the first place. Not that any of these are huge numbers, but Ryu can say he’s the only starter in the game who improved his K% and BB% by at least one percent each and lowered his homer rate at the same time.
Let’s move on to a tw0-year comparison with another lefty pitcher, one who is constantly rumored to be on the move this winter, as soon as a team agrees to satisfy Philadelphia’s demands for top prospects: Cole Hamels.
Hamels has the obvious edge in innings pitched, and a longer track record to fall back upon, although he’s also more than three years older. Otherwise, these are two pitchers who look extremely similar, with Hamels’ advantage in missing bats somewhat canceled out by Ryu’s ability to get more grounders. Steamer doesn’t see all that much difference between the two in 2015, expecting a 3.33/3.36 ERA/FIP from Ryu as compared to a 3.48/3.45 to Hamels.
Each are signed through 2018, which means that Ryu is locked up through his age-31 season, and Hamels through 34. Now, realize what their contracts look like during that time:
2019: ($20M club option / $6M buyout)
2017: $7M (may opt out following season)
At the end of the 2015 season, Ryu will have received only $10 million from the Dodgers, and if he puts up another season like his first two, he’ll have given the team approximately 10 WAR. Even if you do include the $25.7M posting fee, that’s still only $3.5 million per WAR in an environment where wins are going for roughly twice that on the open market.
So what has Ryu done to make this work? As alluded to above, the biggest concern was whether a fringy fastball would have enough life to separate it from a difference-making change. After seeing one of Ryu’s first spring starts in 2013, Keith Law caused a minor stir by noting that Ryu’s fastball sat at only 87-89, never topping 90. Since even the most optimistic reports of Ryu accepted that he was never going to blow anyone away with pure heat, having enough velocity to ensure that he could still throw his change at an acceptable speed while still keeping enough difference between the two to throw off timing would be crucial.
That hasn’t been a problem, really. Ryu has averaged just over 91 miles per hour on his fastball, which is good enough for a lefty with good control, and the change has stuck in the low 80s. That’s a difference of seven miles per hour. As you can see from the graph below, 74 pitchers threw at least 300 innings over the last two seasons and were recorded as having thrown both a four-seamer and a change. Ryu’s FB/CH separation is more or less average, perhaps slightly less than the midpoint:
The change has, in fact, been his best pitch, getting a 15.2 percent swinging strike rate, thanks in no small part to the fact that it comes out of his hand very similarly to the fastball and that he can place it meticulously. Eno just wrote recently about the issues the change has had in getting strikeouts, making Ryu something of a unique case. He also reportedly asked for grip tips from Kershaw on the slider and Josh Beckett on the curve during 2014, though it’s hard to say that either appeared to have a large impact in the numbers.
Ryu’s biggest hurdle in 2015 is proving he can stay healthy, especially since his 2014 ended with a shoulder issue that took out most of his September before a successful return in the playoffs. But based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s not accurate to say that the Dodgers have had two outstanding starters. They have three, and Ryu is a not at all insignificant part of what’s projected to be the best rotation in baseball.