With Ryu Down Again, Toronto’s Rotation Takes a Hit

Hyun-jin Ryu
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have been the hottest team in baseball over the past two weeks. Thanks in large part to an impressive run by their rotation, they’ve won six in a row and 10 out of 12 to open up a seven-game AL East lead. The Blue Jays have quietly kept pace during that stretch, overtaking the Rays for second place in the division by winning 10 of 12 themselves, including eight straight from May 24 to June 2. Even so, their chances of closing the gap on the Yankees have taken a hit with the loss of Hyun Jin Ryu. Last week, the team revealed that the 35-year-old lefty has suffered a forearm strain and elbow inflammation and will be out “multiple weeks” at the very least.

This is already Ryu’s second trip to the injured list this season. After lasting just 7.1 innings over his first two starts and allowing a total of 11 runs, he landed on the IL on April 17 with what was described as forearm inflammation. Upon returning to the Blue Jays on May 14, he fared somewhat better, yielding just six runs (five earned) in 19.2 innings over four starts, but his average four-seam fastball velocity decreased by about one mile per hour from outing to outing, from a high of 90.3 mph on May 14 to a low of 87.6 on June 1 — a troubling trend.

Overall, Ryu has pitched to a 5.33 ERA and 4.81 FIP in 27 innings, that on the heels of a season in which he was merely solid (4.37 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 2.5 WAR in 169 innings) rather than the Cy Young contender he had been in 2019 with the Dodgers (when he led the NL with a 2.32 ERA and made his first All-Star team) and ’20 with the Blue Jays.

“Forearm strain” is always an ominous phrase when it comes to pitcher injuries because of its lack of specificity. Sometimes such a strain turns out to be UCL-related, a precursor to Tommy John surgery; even when it’s not, a flexor strain can mean anything from a few weeks to multiple months lost. In the wake of the announcement, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo wouldn’t speculate as to whether surgery would be required and said that the team is getting second opinions on Ryu’s injury.

Even with Ryu not pitching up to his full capability, the Blue Jays’ rotation entered Tuesday ranked second in the AL in both FIP (3.44) and WAR (5.6), albeit a distant second behind the Yankees (2.99 FIP, 7.7 WAR). Their strikeout, walk and home run rates are all within the league’s top five, and they’re a still-respectable sixth in ERA (3.58).

That said, there does seem to be room for improvement from the unit beyond Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah, who have both been outstanding. The 31-year-old Gausman, whom the Blue Jays signed to a five-year, $110 million deal just before the lockout, leads the majors in FIP (1.61) and WAR (2.8), ranking second in both walk and home run rates (2.6% and 0.28 per nine, respectively) and seventh in strikeout rate (27.5%), though his ERA (2.78) is just 11th. Only a .361 BABIP is keeping his entire stat line from looking otherworldly. The 24-year-old Manoah ranks third in the AL in ERA (1.98), fourth in walk rate (4.0%), and ninth in both FIP (3.03) and WAR (1.5). His slider is one of the game’s best; among pitchers with at least 200 PA ending with the pitch since the start of last season, his .224 wOBA allowed (via a .151 AVG and .278 SLG) ranks seventh.

The strong work of that pair has helped to offset the struggles of José Berríos, who’s been inconsistent and only intermittently effective, pitching to a 5.24 ERA and 4.71 FIP overall. Berríos, who signed a seven-year, $131 million extension last November, didn’t even make it out of the first inning in his season debut against the Rangers on April 8, and since then he has run hot and cold, with five or more runs allowed in three of his 10 starts and two or fewer allowed in five of those starts. Most recently, he followed a 2.1-inning, six-run shellacking by the Angels on May 29 with a seven-inning, two-run, 13-strikeout effort against the Twins on Saturday.

Berrios has struggled with the consistency of his curveball, a pitch he throws 30% of the time. Though his overall numbers on the pitch are good (.172 AVG, .310 SLG, .247 wOBA, 32.7% whiff), in four of his 10 starts he’s either gotten just one swing and miss on the curve or none at all and been pounded for a total of 19 runs (and five homers) in 13.2 innings. In his other seven starts, he’s allowed 14 runs in 43 innings for a 2.93 ERA. Sometimes it’s the curves getting hammered in those outings, but more often it’s his four-seamer, which he’s overusing. He’s throwing the pitch 35.7% of the time, up from last year’s 26.7%, with a zone percentage that’s also gone up (from 60.8% to 69.5%), but it’s been hit for a .372 AVG and .651 SLG. Meanwhile, his changeup has been less effective as well, his overall strikeout rate has dropped from 26.8% to 19.8%, and his Statcast contact numbers — 91.4 mph average exit velocity, 13.3% barrel rate, 48.3% hard-hit rate, .604 xSLG, 6.57 ERA — are a nightmare, each ranking somewhere between the second and ninth percentiles. The Blue Jays will have to hope that Saturday’s outing marks his turning the corner.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s comparatively low-cost free-agent addition, Yusei Kikuchi, whom they signed to a three-year, $36 million deal, has delivered a 3.91 ERA and 4.57 FIP in 46 innings. He has not had a long leash, getting pulled before completing five innings in five of his 10 starts. He’s largely junked his cutter and has struggled with the consistency of his slider, which has been hit for a .323 AVG and .631 SLG. To compensate, he’s throwing more fastballs as well (53.4%, up from last year’s 35.7%), but he’s been skating on thin ice when it comes to the pitch, with a .362 SLG allowed but a .585 xSLG.

For the time being, Ryu is being replaced in the rotation by Ross Stripling, who ably filled in during the lefty’s earlier absence as well. The 32-year-old righty has made six starts and eight relief appearances totaling 37 innings and has pitched to a 3.65 ERA and 3.17 FIP. After getting knocked around for a 4.80 ERA and 5.21 FIP last year in 19 starts and five relief appearances totaling 101.1 innings, Stripling has cut back on his four-seam usage in favor of more changeups and even the occasional sinker. As a result, his groundball rate has jumped from 35.5% to 53%, which has helped to trim his home run rate from last year’s 2.04 to a more manageable 0.73.

Beyond Stripling, the Blue Jays are not deep. The closest thing they have to a ready starter who’s pitching well at Triple-A Buffalo is 34-year-old Casey Lawrence, who has nine starts, a 2.00 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 22.4% strikeout rate in 54 innings. However, Lawrence has started just twice from among his 40 major league appearances dating back to 2017 and owns a career 6.48 ERA at the major league level. The Blue Jays’ top starting pitching prospect in the upper minors, 26-year-old righty Bowden Francis, has been lit up for an 8.82 ERA and 8.58 FIP in 33.2 innings at Buffalo and was recently sent to the bullpen, where he has continued to struggle. Thomas Hatch, a 27-year-old righty who made 20 appearances but just three starts for the Blue Jays in 2020–21, has a 5.76 ERA and 4.24 FIP in 45.1 innings at Buffalo. Max Castillo, a 23-year-old righty who was recently promoted from Double-A New Hampshire to Buffalo, has pitched to a 2.11 ERA and 3.56 FIP with a 28.8% strikeout rate. Two years ago, Eric Longenhagen described the 6-foot-2, 280-pound Venezuelan as “a bowling ball with an upright delivery and two above-average pitches in his heater and split [with] a relief-only mechanical and physical look.” He hasn’t been on a prospect list since.

One more name worth mentioning: Nate Pearson, who was eighth on our Top 100 prospect list in 2020 but has since been beset by injuries and illness. Pearson was limited to 18 innings that year by a flexor strain, and then just 15 in the majors and 45.2 overall — mostly out of the bullpen — last season due to a sports hernia. A bout of mononucleosis prevented him from making his season debut until May 26, and he’s thrown just 3.2 innings so far, maxing out at 30 pitches. As The Athletic’s Kaitlyn McGrath wrote, “The Blue Jays have maintained that he’ll need to earn his call-up with a strong showing in Triple A. If he does, he likely won’t be used as a traditional starter who is pitching deep into games, but he is certainly someone who could offer bulk innings, some of which may come at the start of games.” He could be months away.

As it’s not clear yet how long Ryu will be out, we don’t know yet how deep the Blue Jays will have to dig to find additional starters if something else goes wrong. As Dan Szymborski wrote today, the next two weeks are critical if they’re to close the gap on the Yankees, as they have a soft spot in the schedule via the Royals (whom they beat on Monday night), Tigers, and Orioles. Things get tougher after that with a 17-game stretch against the Yankees, White Sox, Brewers, Red Sox, and Rays. Already, the Blue Jays have seen their odds of winning the division drop from 33.5% to 24.9% since the start of the month. They’ll have to hope that Ryu avoids the worst-case scenario, and that Berríos, Kikuchi and Stripling can help pick up the slack in his absence.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

Much appreciated for the Blue Jays content!