Blue Jays: Will Hyun Jin Ryu Maintain His Dominance?

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) /
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As it currently stands, it is safe to say that Blue Jays hurler Hyun Jin Ryu is on the shortlist of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.

On Tuesday, Hyun Jin Ryu took home the Warren Spahn award which is annually given to the best lefty pitcher in baseball. However, after finishing as a Cy Young finalist in each of the last two seasons, one must look ahead with a grain of salt. Ryu is going into his age 34 season and has has missed a ton of time due to injuries. Moreover, there is still a lot of production to be had before Ryu’s contract could be considered a good one.

Many Blue Jays fans have been quick to the trigger in declaring the Ryu signing a win for the organization. However, there is still $60 million on the books and if all of Ryu’s dominance should be limited to his small 12 start sample size in the 2020 season, then it’d be a more difficult case to diagnose the contract as a good one in hindsight.

On the other hand, if Ryu keeps doing what he’s doing for the remainder of the contract, then you can argue that the Jays got an absolute steal for a pitcher with numbers expected for a Gerrit Cole type contract ($35 million AAV).

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In the interest of forecasting, let’s take a look at all of the externalities that could (or won’t) affect Ryu throughout the remainder of his hefty contract.

(1) The Good

Before we begin to play the devils advocate, let’s evaluate the indicators that suggest Ryu’s performance won’t deteriorate over the course of the next three years. First off, Ryu doesn’t need velocity to be successful. Typically, as a pitcher ages into his mid 30s, velocity takes a nosedive, thus affecting power pitchers the most. This was the case for star power pitchers like CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon who both had to completely rebrand themselves late in their career just to remain serviceable.

In the case of Hyun Jin Ryu, he has seen a dip in velocity over the last couple of years but it hasn’t affected his peripherals or repertoire in the slightest. In fact, Hyun Jin Ryu has been as dominant as he’s ever been since experiencing his first significant dip in velocity. Between 2013 and 2015, Ryu averaged around 91 mph on his 4 seam fastball and between 2016 and 2020, the average dipped to about 89 mph.

Between 2013 and 2015, Ryu produced a modest 114 ERA+ versus the dominant 148 ERA+ produced between 2016 and 2020 when his velocity decreased. 91 to 89 may not seem like a big drop, but for a pitcher whose already always been in the bottom 10 percentile on FB velocity and spin rate for his entire career, it makes a big difference for hitters.

Luckily for Ryu, velocity has not been his saving grace. Ryu’s strength is mixing in pitches and keeping hitters off balanced to produce weak contact. Although there are not many comparable’s in the power pitching era of baseball we are living in, there are plenty of east-west-north-south precision pitchers from previous eras in baseball who were able to pitch deep into their career.

One common comparison of Ryu’s repertoire is that of the great soft tossing righty, Greg Maddux. Maddux is proof that pitchers who don’t throw hard and thrive on controlling the strike zone could successfully pitch deep into their careers. In his age 36 season, he produced an ERA of 2.62 and led the NL in BB/9 in his age 41 and age 42 season.

Based on numbers like these, you can make an argument that pitchers like Ryu and Maddux actually get better with age. Historically, the command of a pitcher gets much better with age and if velocity isn’t an important factor like it is for most other pitchers in todays era, then a pitcher like Ryu could only become more and more dominant.

(2) The Bad

Now that we have talked about what makes Ryu so dynamic compared to other aging pitchers, let’s now play the devils advocate. There’s no denying that Ryu had a spectacular season in 2020, but the 60 game sample size must be taken with a grain of salt. 60 games is hardly enough to gauge the overall talent of a baseball player.

Furthermore, a historic number of superstars such as Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo had down years. This is not to completely discount the 2020 season but its definitely enough of a reason to be speculative of peripherals and other related stats.

In the short 12 game sample size, Ryu looked nothing short of dominant but the short season was a blessing in disguise for him. For a pitcher that has averaged just 20 starts since his inaugural season, one of the most important evaluators to gauge who ‘won the contract’ is the amount of starts he’s able to make in a season.

We know that Ryu is dominant when he’s on the mound but let’s be honest, if 2020 was a full season and Ryu put up the numbers he did in just 15 starts, people would not be raving about his Cy Young esque abilities. Instead, they’d be concerned about his ability to produce over a full season. In baseball, production is measured in the aggregate and the ability to stay healthy is an important factor in maximizing aggregate production. All things considered, Ryu’s numbers over the 2020 season should be taken with at least some speculation.

With that being said, Ryu has been decently healthy since the start of 2019 and perhaps he improved his pre-start conditioning to get to that level but until Ryu has to endure the traditional marathon that is the MLB season, it is uncertain whether Ryu will be able to stay healthy over the course of the next 3 years with the Blue Jays. To add insult to injury, all of Ryu’s significant injuries have come in his 20s and early 30s so logically speaking, the same sorts of injuries would be even more career-threatening as he approaches his mid 30s.

(3) The Verdict

Ryu should be able to perform on par with the dollar-for-dollar value of his contract but don’t expect him to maintain the Cy Young finalist level of play we’ve seen over the last two years. Although Ryu ranks in the upper tier in just about every important peripheral stat when he’s healthy, his injuries in his athletic prime are enough to speculate that he will probably not toss more then 20-25 starts over the next three years.

Although fans are extremely high on his 2020 performance, they must remember that he is an extremely injury prone pitcher who got the benefit of the doubt of pitching a shortened season.

Despite a sparkling ERA of 2.3 over the past three seasons (2.67 in 2020), he’s now facing the toughest hitters in baseball in the American League East. Don’t get me wrong, regression doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be one of the best impact pitchers in the AL but his performance in 2020 renders him a $30-$35 million dollar man in terms of contract value and it’d be remarkably unlikely for him to repeat that kind of production.

Factoring in his low-velocity repertoire that is complemented by age (the good) and the possibility of a significant injury (the bad), an ERA+ of about 135 with an ERA of around 3.20 seems like an appropriate over/under for Ryu’s performance over the remainder of the contract.

The point of this article was not to discount the signing of Ryu but rather to demonstrate how one short sample size of a season will not be the one to determine the overall value of the contract, especially since 2020 only contained 10.9% of the total dollar value owed to Ryu over the life of the contract (assuming that the next 3 years are full regular seasons).

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Furthermore, 2020 was a very transitional season for the Blue Jays and the next 3 seasons figure to be much more important for the franchise as a whole as they look to bolster their roster. Looking at the Ryu contract through this lens, his performance in 2020 isn’t enough to declare a win on either side of the contract.