Hyun Jin Ryu hasn’t really looked like Hyun Jin Ryu lately.
Last season, Ryu was the Blue Jays’ MVP. He posted a 2.69 ERA over 12 starts, finished second in American League Cy Young voting, and was the only one in Toronto’s rotation who could go out and consistently have a good outing until the team acquired Taijuan Walker ahead of the trade deadline.
This season? It’s been a rollercoaster ride.
Ryu has a 4.34 ERA over 29 starts. While he can still have very strong, vintage Ryu outings, such as his masterful start in New York a couple of weeks ago, there simply isn’t the same feeling when he takes the mound as there was ast season. At this stage, Ryu stands as Toronto’s No. 5 starter, as even Steven Matz seems like the better bet to put up an effective start when he goes out.
Since that aforementioned start in New York in which Ryu held the Yankees to just three hits over six innings of work, he’s been drilled by two basement teams, the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins. In those two outings, Ryu has gone four-and-one-third innings, allowing 12 earned runs on 13 hits and two walks while striking out only six. To be fair, the Twins are a good hitting team despite their record, but, still, this is far from what anyone expected to see from the ace heading into the season.
Ryu mentioned that he was dealing with forearm tightness after he leaned heavily on his slider in that start against the Yankees earlier this month. He didn’t end up missing any time and he said yesterday that he feels fine, but his results over his last two starts would suggest that something is up.
The trend for Ryu between this year and last was that he pitches better with an extra day of rest. His start in Baltimore in which he allowed seven earned runs while recording just seven outs was on normal rest, so there was thought that fatigue was the issue there. But his last start against the Twins came on an extra day of rest and he still got smacked around for five earned runs over two innings of work.
Another thing to consider is that Ryu might be struggling with Major League Baseball’s crackdown on foreign substances. He’s a finesse pitcher who relies heavily on painting corners with elite precision, so there isn’t much room for error like there would be with a fireball pitcher who can lean into rearing back and ripping a fastball by a hitter when needed.
Since the crackdown in June, Ryu has made 15 starts, and about half of them have been good and half haven’t.
Here are his games before the crackdown…
And here they are after…
The big difference here is that opposing batters are squaring up and teeing off on his pitches a lot more in the second half than they were in the first. That’s pretty much what we’ve been seeing over these last two ugly starts, as the O’s and Twins combined to hit five doubles and four homers in just over four innings of work.
So, what now?
The Blue Jays are right in the thick of the wild-card race without much room for error. As it stands right now, they’re a half-game out of a playoff spot with 15 games remaining.
Matz is pitching on Saturday, Jose Berrios is going on Sunday, Robbie Ray will kick off Toronto’s key series against the Rays in Tampa Bay on Monday, and Alek Manoah has been pushed back to Tuesday in order to manage his workload. Ryu’s next start would then be scheduled for Wednesday in Tampa, a situation where he would be pitching without an extra day of rest.
The play here might be to give Thomas Hatch, who was decent in his last outing against Baltimore, a short spot start in place of Ryu against Tampa with the bullpen handling a good chunk of the load after. If there’s worry about burning the ‘pen at such a key time in the season, another option would be using Hatch or Nate Pearson Pearson as an opener for a couple of innings and hoping that Ryu can put up four solid frames after that.
Regardless, sending Ryu out there and hoping for six good innings against the Rays, who have the most runs in the American League, is a fool’s errand right now. With little room for error, Charlie Montoyo and Co. need to get creative and make a difficult decision here.