DUNEDIN, Fla. — Hyun-Jin Ryu doesn’t express much in English, but the Toronto Blue Jays left-hander understands the language of baseball just fine. Toronto’s pitching coach, Pete Walker, can see it when he’s talking to the new ace of his pitching staff. During side sessions, Walker will tell him something about a pitch or a location or his delivery, and Ryu will nod right away, immediately filtering a response through his interpreter, Bryan Lee.
“You can tell it’s an art to him. He feels everything. He’s not just throwing the ball — he’s manipulating it,” Walker said. “And he can make it do some different things.”
That’s something Walker’s gotten to see up close over the first two weeks of spring training, and something Blue Jays fans finally got to witness themselves Thursday, as Ryu made his debut for the team that signed him to a four-year, $80-million contract this off-season.
Ryu allowed a run on three hits over his two innings against the Minnesota Twins, throwing 41 pitches (26 strikes) in the game and a handful more in the bullpen afterwards. He pitched out of a jam in the first, giving up a couple hits off his fastball before mixing in more of his off-speed weapons. In his second inning, he left a mistake fastball in a bad spot to Twins first baseman Zander Wiel, who crushed it over the wall in centre field for a home run.
But otherwise Ryu’s command was sharp, as he picked the corners of the plate and earned six swinging strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to all nine batters he faced and generated plenty of the soft contact he’s made his career on.
“That first inning, a couple hits right away. And then all of a sudden we started dialling in some pitches and it was almost like he was starting his wind-up as the fingers were going down,” said Reese McGuire, who caught Ryu and could only remember a couple instances in which the veteran starter shook him off. “We were on pace pretty good right there.”
Of course, there’s no sense in taking too much away from any pitcher’s first outing of spring. Ryu said afterwards his primary goals were hitting his pitch count and getting through two innings. McGuire said he simply wanted to continue learning Ryu’s in-game rhythm and tendencies after catching him in a couple bullpens and a live batting practice session.
But of course there was more going on than that. Ryu’s meek and unassuming when reflecting on his game, and will understate his process when discussing it publicly. But behind closed doors he’s particular and involved, taking a carefully considered plan into not only his start days but his side sessions as well.
He has a personal strength coach who helps manage his conditioning work in between outings, and an individualized throwing program he’s developed over his career. Even ahead of a spring training start, Ryu asked for information on the hitters he’d be facing and sat down with Walker and McGuire to work through a game plan.
Walker knew Ryu was looking to establish fastball command early, implementing his change-up and breaking ball along the way. And the Blue Jays pitching coach figured the big South Korean would have a close eye on how Minnesota’s hitters were reacting to the various pitches he was throwing.
“He’s big on controlling bat speed and getting a feel for a hitter’s swing,” Walker said. “I think he’s just trying to get his rhythm right now. That’s his biggest thing. Even in his sides, he’s not trying to rush his process.”
During the season, Ryu will often skip between-start bullpen sessions, preferring instead to trust his stuff, prioritize recovery, and spend more time crafting an effective game plan to exploit the weaknesses of his next opponent.
This spring, the Blue Jays have endeavoured to match that level of preparation. Toronto’s catchers, McGuire and Danny Jansen, have been tasked with watching video of Ryu’s past starts, looking for sequences that proved especially effective.
The duo has also been drilling down on Ryu’s pitch percentages, familiarizing themselves with what the 2019 all-star’s been able to use to get ahead early, to get back in counts when he falls behind, and to finish hitters off with two strikes. Ryu made starts against both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox last season, outings the Blue Jays have paid particularly close attention to for obvious reasons.
“You don’t want to be predictable — he really doesn’t like that. He wants to mix things up,” Walker said. “So, understanding all the different ways he likes to put hitters away is really important.”
That unpredictability is key to Ryu’s success, as his low-velocity, low-spin rate fastball isn’t overpowering anyone. Rather, it’s Ryu’s sequencing, control, and deception that keeps him ahead of opposing hitters.
He’ll flip in a first-pitch curveball to steal a strike, as he did to Twins third baseman Jack Reinheimer in the second inning Thursday. Or he’ll spot his elite change-up on a corner when he’s behind in the count to generate soft contact from a hitter looking for a fastball.
He’ll stay off the heart of the plate, dropping sinkers on the outside edge to right-handed hitters, and cutters on the inner-half to left-handers. And he’ll disguise those pitches well, repeating his delivery and maintaining his release point to make them all look the same out of his hand.
“When he can command all of his pitches, you really don’t have a wrong pitch in any situation,” McGuire said. “It’s more whatever you’re feeling right there. He’s got a game plan. So, the pitch, whatever pitch you make, kind of dictates the next one. That’s kind of what happened today — we mixed everything up. We ended up using all of his pitches.”
That’s six pitches in total — a four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter, curveball, slider, and change-up. It’s a lot to work on, which is why Ryu’s so regimented in his routines. He knows exactly what he wants to throw in his spring side sessions, working purposefully and never rushing through anything. He eases into his throwing program, as well, something Walker admires and hopes the club’s younger pitchers can learn from.
It’s all a little unorthodox but, hey, when you finish second in National League Cy Young voting you get to call some of your own shots. And to that end, the Blue Jays already have the rest of Ryu’s camp planned out right up until opening day, a schedule they created in concert with him shortly after he reported.
Considering Ryu allowed only 14 earned runs over his first 15 starts of 2019, and had a 2.12 ERA over his first six starts the year prior before getting hurt, it’s safe to say he knows how to prepare for a season. He can throw as many or as few bullpens as he’d like if those are the numbers he’s providing.
“I think initially you don’t change what’s not broken. And he’s certainly had a lot of success, so you let him do his thing,” Walker said. “There will be times when we suggest things, for sure. I have his delivery keys, which we’ll stay on top of. But for the most part, I want him to be comfortable, I want him to pitch his game. And we’ll make adjustments if we need to.”
Ryu says the only difference he’s anticipating when opening day rolls around is pitching in a new league. And obviously a new country as he joins Toronto after starting his professional career in Korea and spending the last seven seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Blue Jays are just hoping the results will be more of the same.
“Thankfully, baseball’s just baseball,” Ryu said after his Blue Jays debut. “Whether I’m in Korea or I’m here in the States. Or in Canada.”