In 2019, Hyun-Jin Ryu posted an MLB-best 2.32 ERA for the Dodgers and was announced as a finalist for the NL Cy Young Award, but finished in second place.
Ryu dominated on the mound without the plus velocity or overwhelming spin rate of many of his peers in an era of increasing velocity and power-pitching. In fact, Ryu’s fastball ranked in just the eighth percentile in velocity and the 11th percentile in spin rate.
MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac said Ryu’s style is the “lost art of pitching, and not throwing.”
“Basic three and sometimes four pitch package, not overpowering,” Plesac said. “Fastball, 91-93, he’ll pitch up in the zone. This is the equalizer for him, the curveball, and it’s a good one. His changeup has gotten a lot better, and it’s been a very good out pitch. He doesn’t strike a lot of people out. He’s not afraid of contact, and he knows what he is.”
Starting pitchers Max Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom, the other two finalists for the NL Cy Young Award, finished first and second respectively in strikeout rate among qualified NL starters. Scherzer’s 35.1% strikeout rate and DeGrom’s 31.7% strikeout rate were significantly higher than Ryu’s 22.5% strikeout rate, which ranked 20th in the National League.
As league strikeout totals have increased, Ryu has found success by pitching to contact and limiting the number of hard-hit balls given up. Ryu’s breakout 2019 season was a result of three key areas of success: an effective pitch mix, excellent command of the strike zone, and an ability to limit the number of walks surrendered.
Ryu featured his changeup much more prominently than he had in the past, throwing it a career-high 27.8% of the time for the fifth highest changeup usage in baseball. In addition, 2019 marked the first season in which Ryu threw his changeup more often than any other pitch including his four-seam fastball.
Ryu’s changeup in 2019 was in many ways the most valuable changeup in baseball. His weighted on base average on contact of 0.257 led the NL among pitchers who threw at least 500 changeups. In addition, his changeup drew a high chase rate as batters were deceived by it’s slower velocity and increased vertical break compared to his fastball.
Additionally, Ryu kept hitters off balance by mixing speeds effectively regardless of the count. By mixing his pitches and having the confidence to throw any pitch in any count, Ryu remained unpredictable and kept hitters from making hard contact.
Ryu didn’t need to overpower hitters in 2019. He just needed to keep them off balance, and he accomplished this by using his changeup more effectively and by remaining unpredictable.
Ryu’s pitch mix was effective in large part because of his ability to throw all his pitches for quality strikes. By commanding the strike zone and keeping his pitches on the edges of the plate, Ryu made very few mistakes that hitters could take advantage of.
Just over 44% of Ryu’s pitches were thrown on the edge of the strike zone, five percentage points above the major league average. This helped Ryu get valuable called strikes, create uncertainty in the hitters’ minds and limit hard contact.
Additionally, his command of each pitch in different parts of the strike zone added to his deception. In 2019 Ryu did an excellent job of keeping his fastball up in the zone and keeping his changeup and sinker down to change the eye level of the batters and keep them off balance.
As a result, few hitters were able to hit the fastball or changeup with authority, resulting in many weakly hit ground balls. In 2019, Ryu had the sixth highest ground ball rate among qualified NL starting pitchers Additionally, Ryu had the sixth highest percentage of weakly-hit balls and the eighth lowest percentage of hard-hit balls.
By placing his pitches on the edges of the zone and by throwing his fastballs up and his changeups down, Ryu was able to induce many weak ground balls and keep hitters from making solid contact.
Part of what made Ryu so effective was his ability to limit the number of walks he gave up. In 2019, Ryu led all of baseball with a 3.3% walk rate.
Remarkably, Ryu’s low walk rate was not a product of throwing a high percentage of pitches in the strike zone. In 2019 he threw just 40.4% of his pitches in the strike zone which ranked 41st in baseball.
Instead, he forced hitters to swing and make contact on pitches outside of the strike zone. Ryu ranked fifth in baseball in swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone. While Scherzer and DeGrom ranked second and fifth respectively in swinging-strike percentage, Ryu ranked 25th with a swinging-strike percentage of 11.4%.
In other words, batters frequently chased Ryu’s pitches outside the zone, but instead of swinging and missing they often made weak contact.
By throwing pitches on the edges of the zone and by inducing weak contact on pitches outside the strike zone, Ryu was able to limit both the number of walks surrendered and the amount of hard contact against him.
In 2019, Ryu delivered quality innings and dominant results for the Dodgers. However, as Ryu tests the free agent market over the offseason, it remains to be seen whether he will pitch in a Dodgers uniform in 2020 and beyond.