Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu Just Had a May to Remember

on Jun2
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A popular phrase in Korean is “Hallyu.” It means “The Korean Wave,” and it might be the most apt phrase to describe what’s going on at Dodger Stadium this season.

Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is having a Cy Young start to the season, and just completed one of the best month’s by a starting pitcher in franchise history.

Ryu threw 7 and 2/3 shutout innings on Thursday night against the New York Mets to complete his historic month of May. Ryu finished the month a perfect 5-0 with a 0.59 ERA, the lowest ERA in a month by a Dodgers starting pitcher since three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw posted a 0.27 ERA in July of 2015.

“This month of May is incredible,” Ryu said through his translator, Bryan Lee. “I’ve always told everyone I want to throw six, seven innings to put the team in a position to win, but I haven’t always been able to do it. But his month of May, I definitely was able to do it, and it’s unbelievable.”

Ryu posted a streak of 32 consecutive scoreless innings during the month, he pitched a complete game shutout against the Braves, and took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Mother’s Day. He has not allowed a home run in 48 and 2/3 innings and on the season is 8-1 with an MLB-leading 1.48 ERA.

“He’s just sitting in a rocking chair and pitching. It’s incredible to watch,” said Dodgers’ President of Baseball Pperations, Andrew Friedman. “He mixes all his pitches, mixes location, and keeps hitters off balance. His feel to execute different pitches in different spots is elite and he’s combining that with more awareness of hitter’s weaknesses and he’s attacking those more. What we’re seeing is a Cy Young level performance to this point.”

Ironically, Ryu’s ascension to baseball’s best starting pitcher has coincided with the national rise of Korean Pop Music, known as “K-Pop,” a global phenomenon that is now topping charts in the United States.

In the month of May, members of the biggest K-Pop group in the world, “BTS,” attended a Dodger game to watch their countryman pitch. A week later, K-Pop group, NCT, threw out the ceremonial first pitch and cheered on their Korean sports icon from behind home plate.

Although Ryu is admittedly a K-Pop fan, he doesn’t credit his country’s musical trend for his meteoric month of May. Rather, a change in his exercise routine between starts this season has enabled him to remain healthy and on the field.

“I’ve been feeling ready to pitch every fifth day and I’m trying to maintain my new routine,” Ryu told NBC LA recently when asked why he’s been able to stay healthy this season.

Ryu has battled injuries for the better part of five seasons. He did not pitch at all in 2015, and appeared in just one game in 2016 after multiple shoulder surgeries. In 2017, Ryu missed 32 games, with foot and hip issues, and missed over three months of the season last year after tearing his groin. He’s shown flashes of his excellent pitching prowess in year’s past, but his inability to remain healthy has plagued him.

What Ryu’s new routine consists of is a bit of a mystery to his teammates and coaches. Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts said he knows its different than any other starting pitcher in the rotation, and its designed to help him avoid injuries and stay consistent.

“What he does is a different program than all of our other starters. He puts in a lot of work to stay healthy and stay strong, but a lot of it is confidence,” said Roberts when asked what the difference in Ryu this season has been compared to past ones. “I think he can go out there tomorrow and throw scoreless innings up. He’s really confident in his delivery and his ability to execute pitches.”

Ryu is not known by today’s baseball metrics as a “hard thrower.” Unlike other pitchers that started in this most recent homestand, he doesn’t throw 100MPH like Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, or Walker Buehler. He’s not a curveball specialist like Kershaw or Rich Hill, but his masterful command of all his pitches has allowed him to best them all.

“It’s like a left-handed Greg Maddux out there or something,” said Mets manager Mickey Callaway when asked about Ryu recently. “He mixes it up better than I’ve seen in a long time. There’s no pattern whatsoever. He drives his arm through every pitch and sells everything, whether it’s a changeup, curveball, he gets through it. He’s using his fastball at the top of the zone at the right time. It’s just a lesson in pitching to everybody sitting there watching.”

The first-time manager of the Mets is no stranger to Ryu. The former big league pitcher spent six seasons in the major leagues before he went to Korea from 2005 to 2007. It was there, pitching for the Hyundai Unicorns of the KBO league that he got his first glimpse of the 19-year-old left-hander.

“I saw him when he was 19 win an MVP in Korea when I was playing there, and he was unbelievable then,” said Callaway. “This kid knows how to pitch. The last couple years, he’s one of the ERA leaders in the league. He’s doing a heck of a job.”

Ryu has held his opponents to two runs or fewer in each of his 11 starts this season, the most by a single starter since Ubaldo Jimenez accomplished the same feat in 2010. He leads the Majors in wins, ERA, ERA+, walks per nine innings, and strikeouts to walk ratio. At this rate, he’s the easy frontrunner for the Cy Young Award, and the presumptive starter for the National League in the All-Star Game.

Ironically, as the NL-pennant winners in 2018, Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts will be the manager of the National League All-Team at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio this July. As such, the decision on who will start the game is up to him. When asked if Ryu is going to be his starter, he declined to answer definitively.

“We’re not there yet,” said Roberts. “But he’s a clear front-runner.”

Ryu has never been named an All-Star, so achieving that honor this season would definitely be a notch on his belt when his career inevitably comes to an end one day. However, when asked if he thinks about pitching in the All-Star Game this year, he said “no,” and instead vows to remain focused on each and every game.

“My main focus is on each and every game and to make sure I don’t give up a walk or an easy hit,” said Ryu. “I’m just trying to limit the damage and do my job as a starting pitcher, so I’m not aware of all the numbers and talk going on.”

Needless to say, with each and every start, the numbers continue to reach new heights, and the chatter grows louder. Barring a major setback, Ryu is destined to be an All-Star this season, but he has other goals on his mind this year.

“I want to win 20 games,” he said. “In order to win 20 games, you have to stay healthy throughout the year. For whatever reason, up until this point, I’m actually on a good roll.”

Let’s hope Ryu’s dominance continues and as B.B. King says, “Let the good times roll.”

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