Wednesday was always going to be an elimination game. Hyun-jin Ryu was just waiting to learn who for.
“You need to win two games. Now, they need to win one,” Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said, plainly, after his club dropped Game 1 of its wild card series with the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday night. “But we’ve got our ace going tomorrow.”
Which was the upshot of holding Ryu back for Game 2 — he’d be on the mound whether the Blue Jays were trying to finish a series or stay alive in one. And while the series odds are now significantly slanted in Tampa Bay’s favour — all the way to 85 per cent, based on ZIPS projections — Toronto will have its best starting pitcher on the hill, well-rested, and pitching in an environment free of any weather-related disruption. The Blue Jays have as strong of a chance as they possibly could to force a third game. It wasn’t Plan A. But it’s a fine Plan B.
“As we thought through Game 1 vs. Game 2 — yeah, is there a slight advantage to winning Game 1 because you can then strategize potentially differently for Games 2 and 3? We viewed the advantage of being able to put our most consistent piece in the middle of those potentially 27-plus innings,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said of pitching Ryu in Game 2. “In this scenario, Game 1 seemed much less significant than in a traditional scenario. Significantly different.”
Thing is, those same ZIPS projections give the Rays a 59.3-per cent chance of winning Game 2, leaving the Blue Jays at 40.7. That’s a testament to how good Tampa’s counter to Ryu, Tyler Glasnow, has been. The Game 2 starter may not boast an impressive ERA — it was 4.08 through 11 starts this season — but he has a 3.66 FIP and 2.75 xFIP which suggest he deserved to fare better. Not to mention a monstrous 14.3 K/9, which tells you all you need to know about how overpowering his fastball-curveball mix can be.
With an average fastball velocity of 96.9 m.p.h., Glasnow was one of the 20 hardest-throwing pitchers in baseball this season. And with a curveball that spins at over 2,900 revolutions per minute, his secondary weapon ranked among MLB’s 92nd percentile. His changeup is as much of a show-me pitch as anything, but even that comes out of his hand at 91 m.p.h.
That makes it a harder than Ryu’s fastball, which averaged 89.2 m.p.h. this season, setting up an extremely interesting contrast of power and finesse styles. For while the attributes of his stuff aren’t anywhere near his opponent’s — Ryu’s fastball velocity and spin each rank among the bottom six per cent of MLBers — the South Korean left-hander is no less effective.
You’ll find Ryu’s name among the top 10 American League finishers in whichever pitching statistic you prefer and it’s hardly hyperbolic to suggest the Blue Jays would not be post-season participants without him. He allowed an earned run or less in two-thirds of his outings and, following a pair of below-standard starts to open the season, pitched to a 1.86 ERA from the beginning of August on.
Ryu’s always excelled at limiting hard contact and 2020 was no exception — his hard-hit and barrel rates were both among the top 10 per cent of MLB pitchers. But what made him even more effective this season was pairing that with a strikeout rate of 9.7 batters per nine innings, after racking up just a hair over eight in 2019. The contact Ryu allowed was as soft as always — there was just less of it to potentially be misplayed behind him.
And, from a more abstract standpoint, the guy controls a ballgame. Ryu’s heart rate appears to fluctuate within a much more narrow range than the rest of us. As he calmly paints the edges of the strike zone, executing pitch after pitch with a delivery as steady as his emotions, Ryu lulls you into a trance until you look up after the sixth and he’s only allowed a run.
“I’ve never been around a pitcher like Hyun-jin Ryu,” Atkins said recently. “There are pitchers that have better stuff, who can overpower better than Hyun-jin can. But I’ve never been around someone that has that ability to manipulate the baseball in huge moments and key situations. Just having so much confidence that he’s going to execute.”
The Blue Jays will need all that and more on Wednesday against a stubborn Rays lineup that likes to wait-out and foul-off their way to long plate appearances against control-and-command pitchers like Ryu. The 33-year-old faced the Rays twice this season, allowing three runs on four hits and three walks in his Blue Jays debut before tossing five one-run innings in St. Pete in his sixth start this August.
They were fine, if unspectacular, outings. But there isn’t much to take away from them. Ryu didn’t have command of his fastball in the first one, piecing together a so-so performance with his secondary pitches. He was better in the second, but got through only five innings as the Rays worked determined plate appearances, fouling off 20 pitches. Ryu doesn’t find any of it particularly instructive.
“It’s been more than a month I think both sides have changed. I definitely have changed. I’m sure the Rays have made adjustments and changes throughout the season,” Ryu said through interpreter Bryan Lee. “I think the game situation and how it flows will dictate whether I will make changes to the game plan or the type of pitches that I used.”
That’s a good thing because unpredictability is what ties Ryu’s game together. His changeup’s a nightmare and his command’s elite. But the fact Ryu will throw a near-even amount of four-seamer’s, cutters and changeup’s, with the occasional knee-buckling 72-m.p.h. curveball mixed in, is what makes him so difficult to square up. Sit on one pitch and you’re probably getting another.
Hyun-jin Ryu’s 3Ks in the 4th inning. pic.twitter.com/5gevy7zs23
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 8, 2020
Still, he should probably be light on that curveball in the zone, as several Rays hitters — Yoshi Tsutsugo, Willy Adames, Ji-Man Choi — have feasted on them this season. But they’ve been much less successful against cutters, which Ryu loves to drive in on the hands of right-handed hitters when he has the pitch working. Whether or not he can locate cutters early on in his outing may be a telling sign as to how successful his outing will be.
On their end, the Blue Jays have endeavoured to make the circumstances as favourable as possible, giving Ryu five days off between his last start and this one. Of course, pitching with an extra day’s rest isn’t unusual for Ryu. If anything, it’s his norm.
Since the beginning of the 2017 season, Ryu’s made 40 of his 80 starts on five day’s rest while pitching only 21 times on four day’s. Two separate organizations — the Los Angeles Dodgers and now the Blue Jays — have independently arrived at the conclusion that the extra day is best.
Is that because Ryu prefers it? Is it because training staffs relying on objective measures of fatigue and recovery feel it’s worthwhile? Is it because research and development departments have reason to believe Ryu’s stuff is diminished after four days as opposed to five?
“I think it’s more just that he’s had it and performed well when he’s had it,” said Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. “And then we just wanted to make sure that he was OK with that. He would’ve certainly gone Game 1 had we asked him to do that. So, he was comfortable with it, getting another day.”
Atkins is right — Ryu’s pitched to a 2.29 ERA in the seven starts he made this season on five day’s rest vs. a 2.74 mark in his four outings on four day’s. But last season it was the opposite, with Ryu working to a 4.12 ERA over 14 starts on five day’s rest as opposed to a 0.71 ERA in seven starts with four day’s off.
But here’s the thing you find when you parse Ryu’s numbers — they’re all good. Because Ryu’s good. It doesn’t matter when he pitches, where he pitches, or how often he pitches. He’s reliably exceptional at suppressing runs. That’s how you work to a 2.30 ERA since 2018, the second-best mark among the 244 MLB pitchers to throw at least 140 innings in that span.
So it’s probably a bigger topic than it ought to be. A bigger question is how deep into Wednesday’s start Ryu will get to pitch. He’s coming off his longest of the year — a seven-inning, 100-pitch outing against the New York Yankees. Last season, the Dodgers let him exceed 100 pitches nine times, going as high as 116 on one occasion.
Partly due to his age and injury history, partly due to the long-term investment they’ve made in him, and partly due to the club’s desire to utilize a deep, capable bullpen, the Blue Jays have managed Ryu’s workloads more cautiously this season. But is there a chance that changes Wednesday if Ryu’s rolling and the run margin is thin?
Montoyo will have plenty of bullpen weapons at his disposal, including right-handers Nate Pearson, Anthony Bass and Rafael Dolis, none of whom pitched in Game 1. Throwing one of them against a run of right-handed Rays hitters in the sixth or seventh inning may be too tempting to resist, particularly if Ryu’s pitch count is climbing close to 100. But there’s an argument to make that even in those circumstances Ryu’s still the best arm the Blue Jays have.
It’ll be a fascinating decision, if it materializes. Every move is magnified in a three-game series. For his part, Ryu’s less worried about how often he pitches or for how long. He’s thinking about what he always is.
“During the regular season, my expectation going in is normally going as far as I can with 100 or so pitches. But once the post-season starts, your attitude and your mindset has to make a shift,” he said. “Your job is to go out there and put up zeroes in every inning. So, going far doesn’t necessarily help. It’s all about giving up the least amount of runs. Hopefully zeroes.”