Blue Jays: Handled differently, Hyun Jin Ryu can still be a star

Aug 31, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo (25) removes starting pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu (99) during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 31, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo (25) removes starting pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu (99) during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports /

It was a frustrating end to the season for Hyun Jin Ryu and the Blue Jays, but with some adjustments to the game plan going forward I believe the veteran southpaw can still be an ace-level contributor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive to the way things finished up for the 34 year old, even if he was pretty solid in his last couple of outings after coming off of the Injured List. He wasn’t the elite starter that we have seen in the past, but he was certainly a serviceable option at a late point in the season.

I realize the Blue Jays are hoping for more than serviceable from someone they are paying 20 million per season, but there are a bunch of variables that we need to consider in the whole picture here. I’m also not making excuses for the way Ryu pitched in the second half, but I think there are a few reasonable points to make, and also consider going into next season and beyond, especially because he still has two years remaining on his deal with the Blue Jays.

First, and I’ve written about this before, I think Ryu was an example of a pitcher that was hurt by the wonky schedule of 2020. He was excellent in his first season as a Blue Jay, but with a shortened 60-game schedule he only made 12 starts and threw 67 innings. It was a little more difficult than it looks because of the start and stop Spring Training schedule that MLB had to use last year, but it was a pretty small workload, especially when you compare it to the 31 starts and 169.0 innings he threw this season.

Heading into the 2021 campaign it was expected that pitchers around baseball might break down more than usual, and we did see that around the league a fair bit. In Ryu’s case, he had one of his healthier seasons for the most part, as he took a regular turn in the rotation pretty much the whole way through before hitting the IL in September with “neck tightness”. Maybe his neck was really bothering him, but I think the majority of us would agree that the break was more about giving him a breather, and hopefully getting him right before his last two starts.

That strategy actually worked fairly well, as the Korean southpaw looked refreshed when he returned compared to when he had left. That said, he still looked like a worn down version of himself compared to the early months of the season, and stamina is likely his biggest question going forward, as it has been at other points in his career.

I really don’t believe that ability is the issue for Ryu, especially after watching him in the first half. He was overshadowed by some of his rotation mates, but the former L.A. Dodger was still one of the better starters in the American League prior to the All-Star break. They also had to rely on him to go deeper in games throughout May and June as the bullpen routinely imploded. Unfortunately that may have contributed to him being one of the worst regular starters in the AL after the break. Have a look at the splits:

That’s a pretty substantial difference, and the eye test was even more obvious than the numbers. Ryu doesn’t have an elite fastball, which means he relies on top-shelf movement and command of his pitches. By the time he got to his August 8th start against the Red Sox, he really didn’t have either going for him, and to me he simply looked worn out. I had hoped that the All-Star break would give him the rest that he needed, but it didn’t seem to be enough.

So what should the Blue Jays do about it? I think they have to be realistic about how they use Ryu next season if they want to see him pitching at his best in September and hopefully October. That might mean that he’ll need to have shorter outings on occasion, or maybe it’s a sign that they skip the occasional start to keep his body fresh. Who knows, maybe even a phantom IL stint will be in order at some point. His body should be better conditioned to the rigours of a full season after having just gone through a normal schedule, but he’ll also be another year older, set to turn 35 ahead of the start of next season.

Managing a pitching staff is never as easy as mapping out a plan for the entire year, but the Blue Jays have to make sure they prepare plenty of rotation depth for next season for multiple reasons. We don’t know yet if Robbie Ray will return, but chances are the rotation will include Ryu, Jose Berrios, Alek Manoah, and likely a free agent or two depending on whether Ray and/or Steven Matz are back in Toronto. Otherwise the other names in the equation will include Nate Pearson, Ross Stripling, and probably others like Thomas Hatch and Anthony Kay.

Those last four and more could be crucial to Ryu’s success next season if they can help facilitate a little bit more rest. Stripling in particular could provide a lot of value out of the bullpen as an arm with length, and likely an occasional spot starter. If he can perform the way he did for most of this season while he was healthy, that’s a big boost that allows for the Blue Jays to be a little more flexible.

Next. Prospects we could see by Opening Day. dark

After the way things went down with the pitching staff in 2021, my expectation is that Ross Atkins and company will make sure that there is a ton of depth throughout the organization ahead of next season. That’s a sound strategy regardless, but I believe it’s all that much more important in order to maximize Ryu’s effectiveness. His may not be what he used to be in the stamina department, but a well rested Ryu is still an asset for the Blue Jays next season.