Hyun Jin Ryu is done for the season, his Jays career now in jeopardy
Ross Atkins announces that major elbow surgery required for the Blue Jays' lefty, who is only under contract through next season
The overarching sense of pessimism that has followed any talk of Hyun Jin Ryu’s recent elbow trouble was borne out on Tuesday afternoon, as Jays GM Ross Atkins announced to reporters at Rogers Centre that the big left-hander from Incheon, South Korea, who was a Cy Young finalist in the NL in 2019 and the AL for the Jays in 2020, will require elbow surgery and is done for the season.
Oof. Sports indeed.
I guess we’d better talk about this..
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You can’t not feel for Ryu in this situation, as he is now potentially facing Tommy John surgery for the second time in a career that has spanned 17 seasons since he debuted for Hanwha of the KBO way back in 2006.
The possibility that it’s merely a “partial revision” maybe sounds good, but it’s a plenty invasive procedure as well, and as MLB Trade Rumors notes, “it’s not uncommon for the extent of the ligament damage to be unclear until the surgeon has actually begun the procedure.”
If it is the full procedure that he receives the timetable for his return will be at least a calendar year, likely longer. The four-year, $80 million contract he signed with the Jays ahead of the 2020 season will have just one year and $20 million left on it at the start of next season, meaning that by the time he’s potentially ready to be activated his remaining salary won’t be far off the ~$12 million the Jays paid Tanner Roark to go away at the beginning of 2021.
That’s an ugly thought to have about a pitcher who, at his best, very much earned that contract. Ryu wowed us from day one with his virtuosity on the hill, tripping up opposing hitters with guile, deception, sequencing, changing speeds, and otherworldly command. He’s been such an easy guy to root for — a man who seems to love life, love a few drinks, and reportedly loves bringing the best Korean food he can find in a given away city to his teammates when on the road. And while we can’t say that the Ryu story is quite fully written just yet, this possibility was undoubtedly on the minds of everyone paying attention to his situation over the last few weeks.
From the ominous tone of the scrum he held after his most recent forearm trouble, to the odd and unnerving suggestion that there were “chronic changes” to his elbow per his most recent MRI, to the fact that he even went for a second opinion — an indication that there was clearly something about the first opinion he received that the team and Ryu didn’t like — you couldn’t help but get the sense that the news here was going to be bad. It’s as unsurprising that it is as it is gutting. Ugh.
Now, to be fair, Roark he was — or is — not. I simply bring up Roark because of the contract status. I bring him up because, like Ryu, he was a guy who one couldn’t so easily imagine fitting into a bullpen role. And, like Ryu, Roark was a guy who — no matter how hard we tried to squint and see positives, or how hard he tried to will his former form into existence (for example by hilariously calling himself a “diesel engine” in a post-game press conference where he was mad about getting pulled early) — it became clearer and clearer over time that something simply wasn’t right.
Here’s Ryu’s ERA and hard hit rate tracked on a rolling 15 game basis since the start of last season — i.e. from a point where he was still very good to when he was… um… very much not.
There is always talk associating velocity with whatever problems Ryu may be having, but in reality the issue hasn’t quite been that. In 2020 he averaged 89.9 mph on his fastball. Last year it was at 89.8. This year it’s been at 89.4. The issue this season, I’d argue, is that his arm, with its frayed ligaments, was unable to locate his pitches the way he once had.
For example, we see how he located beautifully throughout that 2020 season. He was masterful at keeping the changeup low and away to right-handed hitters, elevating the fastball, jamming right-handers with a cutter that moved towards their hands, or perfectly placing curveballs where both right-and left-handed hitters would swing over it or make poor contact.
Ryu pitched his brains out in that pandemic-shortened 2020, putting up a 1.9 fWAR and a 2.9 rWAR on a team where the next best pitcher by both metrics was Rafael Dolis (0.6 fWAR, 1.1 rWAR). He, without hyperbole, led the Blue Jays to the postseason a year earlier than anyone outside of the clubhouse could have realistically expected, and as much as anybody outside of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette made the Jays look like a contender — a destination.
Sadly, when we look at this same heat maps for 2022 the ability to paint has clearly eluded him.
The fastball was catching the heart of the zone, nobody was missing it, yet he struggled so much with the rest of his arsenal he threw it 41% of the time — presumably just for the sake of getting something over the plate. The changeup was catching the plate. The curve was catching the plate. The sinker was gone. The cutter… I don’t even know.
Ryu’s strikeout rate dropped from 26.2% in 2020, to 20.4% last season, to 14.2% this year. His K-BB went from 20.0% in 2020 to 10.6% in 2022. His 7.6% swinging strike rate currently ranks in the bottom 30 of 336 pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched.
It’s been a mess. And while there’s a chance that a repaired elbow will help fix that, Ryu is now in a race against time — and against a body that clearly hasn’t responded adequately to whatever he’s been trying to do to help it over the last 365 days.
Even with that most-optimistic nine month timetable, the Jays can’t be slotting Ryu into their rotation plans for next winter. He can only be a wild card on a team with legitimate championship aspirations — at best.
I hate to say it, but considering his unsuitability for the bullpen, the most likely path here is that he tries to get into shape for next season, tries to make a comeback, maybe even gets to a little action at Buffalo, but by the time he’s ready the Jays will simply have no role for him. With $20 million on the line releasing him before he ever throws a pitch for the team again won’t be a decision they take lightly — nor will it be one they feel the need to make anytime soon — but given where they are in their championship window they unfortunately need to move on. They need to act like they won’t be getting anything more out of him from here on out, because the likeliest outcome is that they won’t.
It’s a shame.
It’s a shame because we were so excited about this guy, and got to see so little of him thanks to the pandemic and now this. Ryu has currently made just 13 career starts at Rogers Centre, and one of those was with the Dodgers back in 2013.1
It’s a shame because Ryu is so bloody well-liked among Jays fans — or at least the ones I haven’t muted or blocked on Twitter (you know, smart ones!) — that while his $80 million contract could easily be viewed as a disaster they’ve been quick to remind whoever they can that it absolutely was not.
All of that is, I think, correct. I’m sure there will be folks out there trying to roast the front office, even though it was essentially understood from the start that this day might come this early. But repairing the Jays’ relationship with Scott Boras mattered. Showing other teams, other agents, and other players that they were serious mattered. Showing their fans that they were serious after years of “Shatkins” and howls of “Cleveland cronies!” and refusals to believe this front office would ever put Rogers’ money where their mouths were mattered.
Could you say that the Jays bet on the wrong guy in this case? Maybe. But I think they bet on just about the only guy they could have — the guy who easily made the most sense for them at the time among those they could have realistically acquired. They also bet on a guy who finished third in AL Cy Young balloting in his first year with the club and, even though it was a brief run, was the anchor of a Blue Jays playoff rotation for the first time four years, and just the third time since 1993. That matters, too. A lot.
They also bet on a guy who helped give them a cushion — a chance to keep rebuilding their farm system while staying relevant at the big league level. A guy who, as his body gives way, has left them in Alek Manoah’s, and José Berrios’s, and Kevin Gausman’s hands. Who helped Manoah get his feet under him in the big leagues through the power of bromance. Whose presence allowed them feel better about trading away guys like Simeon Woods Richardson or Gunnar Hoglund for win-now players. Who has left them with time to develop exciting young arms like Ricky Tiedemann, Yosver Zulueta, Sem Robberse, and Nick Frasso, some of whom just might move through the system quickly enough to be ready to compete for jobs with Ryu by the time he nears his return next summer. If he even gets there.
Some of those guys may even be able to help this win-now Blue Jays team even sooner than that, albeit in trade.
Shi Davidi @ShiDavidiHyun Jin Ryu is headed for surgery, says Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. Nature of procedure will be decided at time it starts, possible Tommy John or a partial repair. Expectation is he’ll miss at least rest of season.
Mostly, though, they bet on a guy you can’t help but like. A completely fun and atypical pitcher for this era of baseball, but a guy who — at least for a while there — you could believe in. A guy you’d like to have a beer with.
I hope this isn’t the end for Ryu — I really do. But if it is, the only regret I’ll have is that it didn’t last longer. Best of luck with your surgery, Hyun Jin. And get well soon.
Here’s to better times…
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The Jays, powered by three hits from Mark DeRosa (lmao!) put up four runs on him. Josh Johnson (lol!) allowed five for the home team, and the Dodgers won the battle of the bullpens that ensued. The final score was 14-5 for L.A.