Blue Jays: Without Ryu, the Jays are not in a playoff spot

MIAMI, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 02: Hyun-Jin Ryu #99 of the Toronto Blue Jays delivers a pitch against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on September 02, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 02: Hyun-Jin Ryu #99 of the Toronto Blue Jays delivers a pitch against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on September 02, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

The Blue Jays have had a lot of important contributors this season, but perhaps none has been more significant than the ace of the rotation, Hyun-Jin Ryu.

A lot of people within the game had their concerns about an injury-prone Hyun Jin Ryu pitching in the AL East, especially with the added pressure of living up to an 80 million dollar contract. The reason I never bought into this was that I watched Ryu pitch on the Dodgers; his arsenal of offerings, his style of pitching, and his ability to control all of his pitches with precision actually makes him a perfect fit for the AL East and more specifically, the hitter-friendly ballparks.

A huge part of that is his ability to create a ton of soft contact. He has been in the top 7% in all of Major League Baseball in exit velocity (86.2 and 86.6 respectively) over the last two seasons; and this year he has had his lowest career hard-hit % at 26.5%, ranking in the 90th percentile of all pitchers in 2020. Ryu’s plus changeup is a big reason he’s had so much success in the AL East. It is the primary pitch that has allowed him to get as many ground balls as he does, sporting a 56.05% GB rate in his eight starts this year.

That changeup is a weapon to all hitters but especially to right-handed hitters, as he often jams the cutter in on the hands of righties and then lets that changeup, which on average is 10 MPH slower, drop right out of the zone in the complete opposite direction. The changeup is just one pitch in his arsenal that has allowed him to string together quality start after quality start, a big reason the Jays have been able to put together as many wins as they have recently.

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The changeup can be a strikeout pitch for Ryu, but often it’s the pitch he uses to set up his cutter, which is his put-away pitch. Over 30% of his strikeouts are finished with it, not a surprise given its effectiveness to both lefties and righties. Almost all of those strikeouts have come against right-handed batters (44 of 48), a bit of a statistical anomaly given the advantage that right-handers typically have facing left-handed pitching.

Aside from strikeouts, Ryu has been equally impressive against both righties and lefties. His ERA splits are hard to believe; he’s got a 2.57 ERA against lefties and a 2.50 ERA against righties. That kind of consistency is a mark of a true ace, which is what Ryu has been this year for a staff that has seen injury’s derail a consistent 5-man rotation. The bullpen deserves a lot of credit for their ability to close out close games, but Ryu has been a catalyst for keeping the Jays in those games and giving length that not many starters have been able to provide.

Out of Ryu’s eight starts this year, seven of them have been decided by two runs or less, four of which were one-run games that the Jays went on to win. For a team that has had 19 games decided by one run this year, a true ace that pitches deep into games consistently and puts the Jays in a position to win every time he takes the ball is what makes him one of the most valuable assets on this team. He has lived up to his contract and then some so far this season, outperforming the rest of the free-agent starting pitching class that included the 324 million dollar man Gerrit Cole.

As the Jays get closer and closer to locking up a playoff spot, the importance of Ryu becomes magnified. Given this year’s playoff format, having a proven ace in Ryu pitching game one of a three-game series will give this young team a much-needed sense of confidence. The value of that confidence cannot be taken for granted, especially with the majority of players on the Blue Jays roster having zero experience in October, not what it’s like to have every pitch and every play put under a microscope on that level.

Ryu has proven his doubters wrong thus far, and if he continues to pitch the way he has, the Jays chances of advancing past the first round of the playoffs will improve exponentially. Obviously, he would only be throwing one of the three games and will have to match up against one of the high seeded team’s ace, but he gives the Jays a legitimate chance of taking an all-important game one.

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We cannot take what Ryu has done for this team for granted, without him the Jays would not be sitting in a playoff spot. He is more than an ace, he represents the corner being turned by this organization; the return of competitive baseball to the city of Toronto and the country of Canada.