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Photo Credit: © Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The argument for starting Hyun Jin Ryu in Game 2 against the Rays

Hyun Jin Ryu is the Toronto Blue Jays’ ace and is the obvious candidate to start Game 1 of the playoffs on Tuesday.

I know this, you know this, THIS is what he was brought to Toronto to do.

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However, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo raised some eyebrows yesterday when he wouldn’t guarantee that Ryu would take the rubber on Tuesday as the Blue Jays play their first playoff game since 2016.

This seemed to light up Blue Jays twitter, with fans once again questioning the organization’s analytics and high-performance department. So, why not try to put ourselves into the shoes of the coaching staff, and find whether this is any merit to starting Hyun-Jin Ryu on Wednesday for Game 2? I’ll present a few cases below, all of which I believe are contributing factors to the team’s current pitching structure considerations.

Extra Rest

Ryu is 33 years old with a significant injury history.

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He notably doesn’t throw between starts and was long handled with care by the Dodgers. When they could, they looked to give him an extra rest day in between starts. Last season down the stretch, the Dodgers were intentional about getting Ryu extra rest and just two weeks ago, the Blue Jays did the same. This may also hint at some tangible fatigue the teams are capable of measuring, data fans don’t typically get to see.

He is also coming off of his first 7 inning start of the season, with Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith noting that he was “a little sore” the next day. If the Blue Jays feel like Ryu is more likely to be at his best for Game 2, then it’s very much worth considering.

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The Opponent

Though it’s not yet set in stone, the Tampa Bay Rays continue to be the most likely opponent for the Jays in the wild-card round. For it to be otherwise, the Jays would have to finish the season 2-0, with the Yankees losing on Sunday to the Marlins. This is possible, of course, but I will build this Ryu argument specifically around the matchup being with Tampa Bay.

As we all know, Tampa is a unique franchise that often brings lineup elements to the table that we don’t see elsewhere. They always seem to have the pieces to match up well against either pitcher handedness, with a strong mix of left-handed, right-handed, and switch hitters.

This is why being strategic with your pitching, and the ability to alternate between left and right-handed pitchers is so important.

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Kevin Cash is quick to load his lineup with opposite hand hitters, so you want to have a good strategy to combat that. Forcing the Rays to choose between emptying their bench, or riding out same-handed at-bats, is something Montoyo will be looking to accomplish.

This makes Robbie Ray and Ryan Borucki significant x-factors out of the bullpen.

We know that the non-Ryu starters are most likely to be Taijuan Walker (RH) and Matt Shoemaker (RH). I am almost certain that a left-handed pitcher will be the choice to enter the game once they are pulled, and the Jays only have two they are likely to count on in the series. Those two pitchers are traditionally starters, with very little experience pitching on back to back days. By starting Ryu in Game 2, you split the right-handers for Games 1 and 3.

Those games will feature a heavy dose of left-handed bats in the starting lineup, and Borucki/Ray becomes legitimate weapons. Their most likely off day would be when Ryu pitches, so providing a day of rest for one or both of them could be incredibly valuable.

Fresh Bullpen

One of the big benefits of securing a playoff spot days before the playoffs begin is the ability to play and rest players as needed, in preparation for Game 1. The Blue Jays will be using the games this weekend to get their important ‘pen arms rest, or one final appearance, as they see needed.

They will begin Game 1 in Tampa with an entirely fresh bullpen, ready to tactically use however they see fit.

Given what we’ve seen out of them this season and the fact that a non-Ryu Game 1 starter is Shoemaker/Walker, it’s reasonable to anticipate anywhere from 4-7 innings needed from the bullpen in that first game.

Starting Ryu in Game 2, provided he doesn’t struggle, means more of a 2-4 inning bullpen game. Game 3 would again look like Game 1, with the possibility of 4-7 innings of work for the bullpen.

The fresher a bullpen arm is, the better they will pitch. Splitting the expected usage (innings pitched) as 4-7, 2-4, 4-7 seems like a win over 2-4, 4-7, 4-7. Of course, these games don’t play out how you expect, but it’s reasonable to game plan that Ryu will go further into his start than either of the other starters will.

The possible benefit of an ace level performance from Ryu in Game 2 gives you an all-important rest day for the middle tier relief options, as they will be counted on for the next game.

Playoff Structure

A three-game playoff series is brand new in Major League Baseball and should be viewed through that lens.

We’ve come to be familiar with one-, five-, and seven-game series, all of which would make Ryu starting Game 1 a no brainer.

In a three-game series, your best starter is only appearing in one game, no matter what. Game 2 is just as likely to take place as Game 1 (pending the 2020 meteor wipeout I’ve come to expect), therefore, you can game plan how all other pitchers best fit the format, as you play games on three consecutive days should the series begin 1-1.

In a one-game wild card, you start your ace, no questions asked. In five- and seven-game series, you start your ace in order to have them fresh for another start later in the series. So just because opening with your ace feels comfortable due to the past, you should recognize why starting your ace is far more important in all other series structures outside of a three-game set.

Conclusion

All of my arguments above show the reasons why Montoyo and his staff would consider starting Ryu Game 2. You may not agree with the strategy, but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the idea outright because it seems unfamiliar. Small edges in the playoffs can prove vital, and every single decision will be made with the intent to win the game and series.