– Story contributed by Steven Lieberman
The Los Angeles Dodgers investment in their South Korean pitching ace, Hyun-Jin Ryu, has finally begun to pay dividends, as Ryu is healthy and performing to his potential.
Three weeks into the month of June, Ryu has a 9-1 record with an ERA of 1.27 in 15 starts. His ERA is presently the best in the majors and fourth-best by a pitcher in their first 15 starts of a season since 1920 – if Ryu maintains that ERA this entire season, it would be the lowest since the immortal Bob Gibson‘s 1.12 in 1968 while pitching for the St Louis Cardinals.
The Soon-to-be All-Star southpaw is also the reigning NL Pitcher of the Month for the month of May. The beefy 6’3″ 32-year old hurler is now 6-0 with a 0.94 ERA in eight starts at Dodger Stadium this season.
When he was a free agent after the 2018 season, Dodger ownership was wise to offer him a one-year contract for $17.9 million. Their bet is now paying off, big time.
Born in Incheon, the “Korean Monster” pitched seven seasons for the Hanwha Eagles of the KBO before signing a six-year, $36 million deal with the Dodgers in December 2012 at age 25. What makes this journey even more remarkable, are the humble (if not ominous) beginnings.
He was not reaching his potential as a starter in 2013 and 2014 and then over the next four seasons, Ryu was plagued with injuries. After suffering shoulder soreness in 2014, he missed all of 2015 with surgery to repair a torn labrum. It was also discovered that he’d been pitching through the injury during his first two years with the Dodgers and also further revealed that he left Korea already hurt.
After sitting out 2015, Ryu made just one start in 2016 while battling elbow tendinitis. In 2017, a hip contusion in May and a hit off his forearm in September prevented him from pitching a full season, but then things seemingly got even worse.
In the second inning of a May 2, 2018 start, he came up limping and had to leave the game. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts revealed that Ryu had not just injured his groin, but also sheared the muscle off of the bone, which kept him on the shelf until mid-August.
Amazingly, since then, Ryu has been the best pitcher in the majors. His variety of pitches are extremely difficult for hitters to read, because his fastballs and changeups all come out of his hand the same way, and have similar movement.
Ryu has also gotten better at preparing for each game and knowing what sequence of pitches to throw to each batter. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt encouraged Ryu to sharpen this part of his preparation.
“I challenged him to be a little more proactive in preparation,” Honeycutt said. “I said, ‘You’ve got great feel at reading swings, but you’ll be even better if you actually know where this guy’s biggest weaknesses are.”
Ryu has taken his coach’s words to heart — “I am trying to use their weaknesses and try to be aggressive and attack the zone…to execute my gameplane,” Ryu said.
Ryu attributes his success mostly to being healthy this season. “I am in a really good rhythm and my body feels great, Ryu said. “I just want to keep that going.”
Dodger fans are enjoying watching Ryu’s special season. His command, speed changes, up and down movement, as well as in and out control, and the way he mixes up his pitches, continues to keep opposing batters off balance.
Roberts is also pleased with his Korean pitching ace.
“To watch him work as a technician, he is masterful,” Roberts said. “Everything he wants to do with a hitter, he’s able to do it.”
Ryu’s next scheduled start is on Friday, June 28th vs the Colorado Rockies. This will be the second game of a four-game series in the mile high city. The Dodgers next home game is scheduled for Tuesday, July 2nd, when they will face the Arizona Diamondbacks on “Star Wars night” at Dodgers Stadium.
* Steven Lieberman is a veteran sports/arts/entertainment journalist. He has covered entertainment and Los Angeles-based pro sports for over 14 years. In addition to covering the NHL, NBA and MLB, he also covers concerts, theatre, opera and other entertainment events.