There is truly no greater time to make reactionary generalizations about the baseball season than three weeks into it. Are teams playing better than expected? Plan the parade. Are certain players not performing to the previous standard? They’re washed, send them down, cut them.
For some players, all it takes is a little time to wear off the rust. April is, after all, a month that most teams have to endure through wretched stat lines or wonky win-loss records. Sample size obviously plays a huge role in this, but no matter how few games are played, no player wants to look up at the scoreboard and see their name next to a .134 average or a 14.5 ERA at any point in the season.
So when is it an appropriate time to worry about a player off to a sluggish start? Early May? Late May? The first week of June? At what point does a slow start turn into a bad season?
There is a saying in baseball that you can’t win the division in April, but you can certainly lose it. I like to think this applies to players as well and the one Blue Jay that needs to keep this in mind is Hyun Jin Ryu.
The 35-year-old was off to a horrendous start to his season before he landed on the IL with forearm inflammation, pitching only 7.1 innings in two starts while posting a 13.50 ERA. In those 7.1 innings, Ryu gave up two homers while striking out five and walking two.
The counting stats are not good but these are the stats that get artificially inflated due to the small sample size. Typically stats after two starts don’t mean a whole lot this early into the season, however, underlying numbers can do a lot more to demonstrate the patterns and performances of players early into the season, which allows us, the viewers, to properly see if those numbers are just a by-product of a small sample or if the struggles or successes are more complex.
So with that being said, how do expected stats and advanced analytics measure Ryu’s early-season struggles? Let’s just say it’s not good.
For starters, the velocity on Ryu’s fastball, curveball and cutter have all decreased, with only his changeup increasing in velo. None of his pitches sits above 90 mph, his four-seamer averages 89.5, the cutter at 85.7, curveball at 72.2 and the changeup at 80.3.
In his two starts, Ryu has faced 35 batters and has thrown the fastball 44 times, allowing just three hits for an average of .375. However, of those three hits, two were home runs and statcast has the expected batting average off those fastballs at .392 with an expected slugging of 1.448!
Imagine if every time Ryu winds up to throw a fastball the batter in the box is Barry Bonds from 2004, and then imagine two of them because Bonds only slugged for half of that.
Every other pitch Ryu has in his arsenal has an expected slugging lower than .350, with his curveball coming in at .152. However, that does not mean his other pitches are not getting smacked around as well. His cutter has a hard-hit rate of 60%, while all of his pitches combine for a hard hit rate of 42.9%, placing Ryu in the 31st percentile of qualified Major League pitchers.
The average exit velocity off a Ryu pitch is sitting at 91.7 mph, while the max exit velocity off a Ryu pitch this season has been 114 mph, placing him in the bottom 3% of the league.
As a pitcher, Ryu’s strength has always been his ability to flood the zone with strikes and avoid the free pass. Oddly enough though, Ryu’s four-seamer and cutter are his two pitches that have a lower zone rate than last season. Given the rate at which those two pitches are being hit it’s strange to imagine Ryu has missed the zone with these pitches at a higher rate than ever before.
Ryu’s formula for success has always been as follows: throw the ball in the zone, avoid walking batters, and induce weak contact. Check the box on all these things, success across the board. Of course, aside from the 13.50 ERA and stupidly high expected slugging that is.
Thus far Ryu’s pitching patterns have not changed drastically from the last couple of seasons. It’s not like his fastball has dropped five mph or his curveball lost 1000 rpm. So what is causing the ball to be hit so hard off of him?
Well, it doesn’t take a pitching coach to deduce that throwing fastballs in the strike zone at a velocity that most pitchers nowadays throw a changeup, is not a recipe for success. This has always been the reality of Hyun Jin Ryu, as he has never thrown hard or deceived hitters with an air-bending breaking ball. His strength comes from his ability to actually pitch, not the type of pitching we see today with the flashing velocity, but the pitching that our grandparents talk about. The mixing and meshing of different pitch types and the meticulous and never-ending strategy of the purveyors of the low 90s heater. Like Greg Maddux or Zack Grienke, that type of pitching.
His is an art performed by few in today’s game. Ryu has preferred, perhaps out of necessity rather than choice, to drop in a cutter on the corner and follow it up with a change-up falling through the zone, dangling it in front of the hitter before it dives and clips the bottom. Rarely will he blow a hitter away with an electric fastball or buckle their knees with a curveball spinning so fast it could drill a hole through the ground.
But that finesse that Ryu has built his game upon had its foundations in his ability to outthink a hitter and send them back to the dugout, bat swaying helplessly at their arms, wondering what on Earth he had just done to them. Yet, in his two appearances this season, Ryu has barely been able to put any hitter away, let alone left them flummoxed. His 45% put-away rate is 9.3% lower than last season and the vertical movement on his fastball is 26% worse than league average, at just 21.1%.
The biggest change in Ryu’s game has been strikeout percentage, whiff percentage and out of zone swing percentage. All of these categories have seen drastic drops. Ryu’s strikeout rate is down 6.1%, whiff rate has fallen 7.6% and the rate at which hitters swing at pitches outside of the zone is down 10.9%.
These decreases are alarming, especially for a pitcher entering his age 35 season and with almost 40 million still owed to him over the next two years. Numbers like these don’t just bounce back after a stint on the IL. His strikeout rate will not climb back up six points and his fastball won’t gain several inches of vertical movement.
This type of decline happens to all pitchers entering the twilight of their career. Rarely do we see back nine renaissances, unless you’re a pitcher named Justin Verlander or Charlie Morton, but of course, every rule has its exceptions.
Ryu’s struggles have more to do with a natural regression in his game that inevitably comes with age than it does with anything else. His advanced stats have been pointing to this outcome for two years and we’re now just seeing it happen in front of us, slowly and painfully. Like witnessing a train wreck in slow motion.
This is not to say Ryu cannot return and pitch at a competent level, he can surely do that and hopefully for the Blue Jays, he will. Or else that contract and the 40 million still owed will look worse and worse with each passing start.