When the Los Angeles Dodgers signed a 25-year-old Korean named Hyun-Jin Ryu in the winter of 2012, no one really knew what to expect. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Ryu as the No. 37 free agent available that offseason, noting that given his physique he was someone who might eventually end up in the bullpen.
The Dodgers, however, clearly saw something different — paying almost $26 million to negotiate with Ryu (the largest amount ever paid for a Korean player). With the negotiating rights in hand, the Dodgers then handed him a six-year, $42 million contract.
Looking back on the deal, a personal favorite memory was where Ryu likely slotted in the Dodgers’ rotation: behind Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Josh Beckett, and ahead of Aaron Harang, Chad Billingsley or Chris Capuano as they were vying for the fifth starter job.
According to FanGraphs’ calculations, the cost of one “win” above replacement is about $4.2 million. Meaning, that over Ryu’s six seasons, the Dodgers would need to get about 10 WAR from Ryu for it to financially be worth it.
Interestingly enough, between 2013 and 2018, Ryu netted just north of that — 10.2 WAR. But here’s what’s interesting: he did that despite missing two seasons.
In 2014, coming off the best season of his career (26 starts, 3.38 ERA, 2.62 FIP, 14 wins), Ryu was primed for a big 2015. Unfortunately, a shoulder surgery prevented him from ever pitching during the regular season.
Optimistic that he would rebound in 2016, Ryu made just one start before elbow discomfort led to another surgery and another lost season. In 2017 and 2018, Ryu made a combined 39 starts.
So, you might be wondering, what’s so special about him?
Well, when he does pitch, he’s really quite good.
Consider this: since his rookie season in 2013, Ryu has 3.11 ERA, which is the 11th-best mark in all of baseball among pitchers with at least 600 innings. For context, he’s just ahead of Jon Lester, Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Justin Verlander, James Paxton and Gerrit Cole.
Or, here’s one more stat: since the start of 2018, no pitcher with at least 100 innings has a better ERA than Ryu’s 1.99.
You might be thinking to yourself, yes, that’s all great, but he can’t stay healthy. And that’s a fair assessment. But here’s the thing with the Dodgers: this is a franchise that (seemingly) is all about quality over quantity.
It’s why they love the likes of Ryu and Rich Hill. Not because they’re looking for 200 innings from them every season, but because they’d rather get 140 really good innings from them than 200 average innings from another option, knowing they can make up for missed starts with an abundance of pitching depth.
And, well, if that’s your strategy it’s hard not to love Ryu. He is 32 years old and coming off the best start of his career in a complete-game shutout with just four hits allowed (zero walks) and six strikeouts, all needing just 93 pitches against the Atlanta Braves.
So where do we go from here? This season, Ryu is playing on the qualifying offer — having accepted a one-year, $17.9 million deal rather than test free agency. Which, given where a guy like Dallas Keuchel currently stands, was probably the smart move.
But at the end of the season he’ll become a free agent yet again. Let’s say he makes 20-25 starts and throws 140-150 total innings while maintaining an ERA around 3.00 — what will that mean for Ryu?
What’s interesting is that the perfect comp is a guy just a few lockers down from him in Hill. In 2016, the Dodgers acquired Hill from the Oakland Athletics and he was fantastic in six regular-season appearances.
Despite being nearly 37 years old at the time, the Dodgers rewarded Hill with a three-year, $48 million contract. Again, despite making a total of just 20 starts (110 innings) the previous season.
Since signing that deal, it’s easy to imagine the Dodgers aren’t disappointed in what they have gotten. Hill has made 51 starts in the last two-plus seasons with an ERA of about 3.50 — and he has been even better in the postseason.
The point being that this winter Ryu will be 32 years old and if he’s able to stay healthy and make 20 more starts, it’s easy to imagine why the Dodgers might be interested in keeping him around.
Yes, the Dodgers are deep with starting pitching but as Tuesday night showed, the upside of the underrated Ryu might trump all that.