Hyun-Jin Ryu emerged as one of the top rookie pitchers in the National League in 2013, serving as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third starter for the entire season and making all but one scheduled start.
Signed to a six-year, $36 million contract prior to the 2013 season after an impressive tenure in the Korean Baseball Organization, Ryu led all qualified NL rookies with 192 innings pitched, ranked second in wins (14), third in ERA (3.00) and fourth in strikeouts (154).
The left-hander also proved he could handle the pressure of the postseason, tossing seven scoreless innings in a win over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLCS, with the Dodgers down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.
However, as the 27-year-old embarks on his second season in the major leagues, he'll be expected to build off his impressive rookie campaign and help the Dodgers return to the postseason.
With any player coming off an impressive rookie season, a big deal is made about his capacity for improvement in context of the dreaded sophomore slump. After a full season in the major leagues, opposing teams generally have excess scouting reports at their disposal and therefore are knowledgeable of a player’s specific tendencies in all facets of the game.
While Ryu may not post the same eye-catching numbers he did last year as a rookie, the left-hander shouldn’t fall victim to a sophomore slump in 2014.
Best Shape of His Life?
Ryu was the first to admit that he was “unprepared” entering his rookie campaign, as he spent a majority of last offseason dealing with contract negotiations before signing in early December with the Dodgers.
This year, however, the southpaw has a better idea of what to expect in spring training, and more importantly, what it requires physically to survive a full season in the major leagues.
Speaking with Ken Gurnick of MLB.com earlier this month, Ryu stated “last year was trying with the contract, and I didn’t get a head start. I’ve had more time to prepare this year.”
“My teammates definitely push me. At the end of the day, you have to do it yourself. I just try to be in the best shape I can. I’m an athlete; it’s my job to be in the best condition,” he added.
Besides missing one start due in early September due to back stiffness, Ryu didn’t show any obvious signs of fatigue last season, such as a declining release point or dip in velocity. So if he’s actually in better shape this year as he claims—don’t expect it to show physically—the left-hander should be more prepared for the rigors of a full season.
Ryu fared well against right-handed hitters last season, registering a .245 opponents’ batting average and 1.45 ground-ball rate with a 117-35 strikeout-to-walk rate in 145.1 innings. A look at the left-hander’s pitch-specific splits reveals his overall effectiveness was directly tied to his fastball and changeup usage. When Ryu was hit hard, it was usually on a curveball or slider.
Simply put: Right-handed batters feasted on Ryu’s breaking balls last season, consistently driving both pitches when they were located in the lower-two-thirds of the strike zone, and even those off the outside corner:
The above zone profile would suggest that right-handed batters were able to recognize Ryu’s curveball and slider out of his hand, tracking the break into the strike zone and putting a good swing on the ball.
As a result, Ryu primarily used his fastball-changeup combination last season against righties. Actually, he would have struggled even more if not for the season-long effectiveness of his changeup, as he used the pitch to hold right-handed batters to a .165 batting average on the year.
Assuming that opposing hitters look for his changeup more often in 2014, Ryu has the potential to take a step forward with improved execution and sequencing of both breaking pitches. He had success last year with both offerings when working over the plate but still below the strike zone, so it'll be interesting to see if he attacks hitters there more aggressively in the coming season.
Ryu’s BABIP and FIP suggest that the left-hander wasn’t necessarily the beneficiary of luck last season, though some of that might have been negated by his high strand rate.
The combination of Ryu’s strong command and lack of a universal swing-and-miss offering has made the left-hander adept at escaping jams. Last season he logged a total of 42 innings with runners in scoring position, holding opposing hitters to a .228 batting average in those situations while posting a strand rate of 78.2 percent.
Each of the projection models believes Ryu’s strand rate will normalize in 2014, though it shouldn’t adversely impact his ERA and FIP in the long run. They also project he’ll post strikeout and walk rates similar to the ones he did last year as a rookie (7.22 K/9, 2.30 BB/9).
Will Hyun-jin Ryu experience a sophomore slump in 2014?
The one outlier across the three models is the ZIPS projection for Ryu’s home run rate (1.18 HR/9) next season, which is considerably higher than the Oliver (0.77) and Steamer (0.72) forecasts. However, that trend seemingly is taken into consideration, as ZIPS also calls for him to post a 3.65 ERA and 3.93 FIP—his highest projected totals for each category.
If Ryu can stay healthy and the projection models prove to be mostly accurate, then the 27-year-old should be a similar pitcher to what he showed in 2013. And though his improvements might be minimal, there's nothing to suggest Ryu is in store for a regression next season.