After a rough start to the season and a minor injury to his pitching arm, Ryu no longer looks like the ace he once was. It’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank.
Ryu turned 35 in March, making him the tenth-oldest active starting pitcher in the majors this season. 35 is a real turning point for a starting pitcher. For many, by the time they reach their mid-to-late thirties, they don’t have much left to offer. But those that are able to pitch into their late thirties are usually pretty good.
The nine starters older than Ryu have combined for a 3.26 ERA this season. That’s nearly a full run better than the average ERA for starters aged 27 to 32, supposedly the prime years of a baseball player’s career.
After two starts, Ryu has a 13.50 ERA.
So, what can we expect from Ryu when he returns? Will he be one of the many starting pitchers to run out of gas in his mid-thirties, or will he be one of the rare few who finds new ways to succeed as his body gets older? Let’s see what can we can find out.
Signs of Slowing Down
Sean Murphy hit the BANANAS out of this one.
— MLB (@MLB) April 16, 2022
According to Pitcher List, Ryu’s average fastball in 2019 clocked in at 90.8 MPH, while in 2020 it dropped to just 89.7 MPH. That drop in velocity shouldn’t be too surprising considering the highly unusual way the 2020 season started. However, it is noteworthy that Ryu never regained that lost mile per hour. In 2021, his fastball averaged 90 MPH, while so far in 2022 he’s averaging just 89.5 MPH with his heater.
With an 89.5 MPH fastball, Ryu is no longer the pitcher he was at his peak. But Ryu was never a high-velocity pitcher, and if he could contend for a Cy Young with a 90.8 MPH fastball, he can still be a good pitcher at 89.5 MPH.
However, while his low velocity shouldn’t be an immediate cause for concern, low-velocity pitchers like Ryu have much less margin for error. If his fastball velocity drops below 89 MPH, he could be in real trouble.
Ryu’s velocity is something to keep an eye on because he doesn’t have much room to fall, but as it stands, this isn’t an area of concern quite yet.
The various ERA estimators tell two very different stories about Ryu’s performance thus far. Half of them suggest he’s been pretty awful in his first two starts, while the other half suggests he’s been pretty close to league average.
His FIP, xERA, and DRA are concerning, but his xFIP, SIERA, and cFIP are much more encouraging.
The huge discrepancy between these numbers highlights something we already know: 7.1 innings pitched is a tiny sample size.
However, while Ryu hasn’t pitched enough for these numbers to mean much, I know plenty of fans will be concerned after seeing his sky-high ERA, FIP, and xERA. That’s why I think it’s important to bring up his more reassuring ERA estimators too.
While some stats make it look like he got off to a rough start, the other stats serve as a reminder that it’s far too soon to worry about him, and he can still be the competent pitcher he was last season.
As the season wears on, if you find yourself worrying about Ryu’s FIP or xERA, make sure to check the other ERA estimators too. By the end of the season the numbers usually all look pretty similar, but in a small sample size, they can paint very different pictures.
One reason Ryu struggled in his first two starts is that he wasn’t inducing very many called strikes or whiffs. His CSW% was just 20.3%, which is much lower than his 28.3% career average.
Ryu has succeeded in the past without an exceptional CSW% — his career CSW% is right around league average — but he’ll need to induce more called strikes and whiffs going forward. A 20.3% CSW% would rank dead last in the majors among qualified starters.
In Ryu’s defense, this excellent pitch definitely should’ve been a called strike. But I digress.
"That's outside" vs "That's a strike"
— Chris H (@the_manekin) April 16, 2022
The main reason Ryu’s CSW% is so low is because batters have been making more contact against him than usual. In particular, they’ve been making much more contact against his pitches outside the strike zone.
In his best seasons, Ryu has succeeded by getting hitters to swing at a lot of pitches outside the zone. In 2019, when he finished second in NL Cy Young voting, he finished third in the NL in swing rate on pitches outside the zone.
So far in 2022, he has induced far fewer swings on pitches outside the strike zone — hitters have swung at just 25% of his pitches outside the zone. From 2019-2021, hitters swung at 35.6% of his pitches outside the zone.
What’s even worse is that hitters have been making more contact than ever on those outside-the-zone pitches. Hitters facing Ryu have made contact on 82.4% of pitches they’ve swung at outside the zone. From 2019-2021, that number was just 69%.
Hitters have been making almost as much contact on Ryu’s pitches thrown outside the zone as those thrown inside the zone. That shouldn’t be the case.
Ryu simply has been able to trick hitters with pitches outside the zone like he used to. In 2021, his 30.5% chase rate put him in the 76th percentile of pitchers. This year, his 19.6% chase rate puts him in the 10th percentile.
This is something pretty important to keep an eye on, but again, it is not time to panic yet. One strong start for Ryu when he returns from the IL could change these percentages significantly.
Nevertheless, this is definitely something to be aware of if you’re concerned about Ryu. If he continues to allow a high rate of contact, especially on pitches outside the zone, it could be a really bad sign.
Hyun-jin Ryu, Pretty 73mph Curveball. 🌈 pic.twitter.com/b3R1VIdWpF
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 10, 2022
There is reason to worry about Hyun Jin Ryu, that much is true. He has one of the slowest fastballs in the league, and he’s on the wrong side of 35. His ERA, FIP, xFIP, and DRA look pretty disastrous.
What used to be one of his greatest skills — inducing swings and misses on pitches outside the strike zone — has looked more like a weakness so far this season. He is dealing with soreness in his pitching arm, which is never a good sign.
On the other hand, it’s far too early to worry about Ryu. He’s proven himself to be a smart and capable pitcher over his long MLB and KBO career. Just as many of his ERA estimators look fine as look awful.
With just a couple strong starts, his outside-the-zone contact rate might not look so bad. And while his injury is a bad sign, it could also explain why he was off his game in his first two starts. Perhaps some time on the IL will do him good.
Ryu no longer looks like the Cy Young finalist he was in 2019 and 2020, but he doesn’t look like a total lost cause either. With time, his .346 BABIP, his 19.6% LOB%, and his 22.2% HR/FB will all regress, and he’ll stop allowing so many runs.
The smartest bet is that he’ll be just as capable this year as he was in 2021 when he was a solid, inning-eating, middle-of-the-rotation starter. With aces Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman in the fold, that’s all the Blue Jays need him to be.
Photography by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)
Statistics from Pitcher List, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant.