Call it the curse of my NL power rankings; in my preseason edition of ‘The Senior Class’, I noted of the top-ranked Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace “Clayton Kershaw’s balky back has landed him on the DL, though the move right now is considered to be more a precautionary measure than anything.” His stint backdated to March 23rd – the day after dominated the Diamondbacks at the Sydney Cricket Ground – the newly-minted southpaw was at that point expected to return inflammation free at the earliest possible date, April 8th, for a marquee match-up against the Detroit Tigers. Fresh news today though has indicated that it will actually be a further two to three more weeks before he’s even re-evaluated, a time during which Kershaw will reportedly partake in both a submaximal throwing program and a minor league rehab assignment. Andrew Cashner, who had a similar injury two years ago, missed two months because of it; if the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner is out even half as long, it will still be a severe loss to L.A.
Fortunately for PECOTA’s favorite team, the Dodgers possess another lefty starter who’s pretty darn dominant himself – Hyun-jin Ryu – who’s ready to temporarily assume Kershaw’s mantle.
On half the teams in the majors (at least by my estimation), the 27-year-old would be a no. 1, a staff anchor atop the rotation; as part of a roster that not only normally boasts the aforementioned Kershaw and his Sandy Koufax impersonation every fifth day, but $147 million man Zack Greinke too though (who looked decidedly rusty in his outing against the Padres earlier today by the way), the 27-year-old is oft-overlooked. Bumped into a more prominent role than his regular no. 3 slot by means of Kershaw’s extended absence (as well as questions regarding Josh Beckett’s return from major surgery and Dan Haren’s effectiveness both affecting his utmost importance to the rotation), it should quickly become apparent – if you didn’t notice his under the radar performance last year that is – that Ryu is really, really good.
After paying a posting fee of $25.7 million to negotiate with the Hanwha Eagles, the Dodgers signed the Scott Boras client to a six-year, $36 million contract (with an out clause that kicks in after the fifth year if he has pitched 750 or more innings) in December 2012. Their investment immediately paid off, as Ryu became the first player to jump directly from the Korean league to the major leagues; breaking Spring Training with the club, the portsider posted a strong rookie campaign, going 14-8 in his 30 starts with a 3.00 ERA (192 IP). Of course, overshadowed by not just his fellow freshman teammate Yasiel Puig, but exceptional first years from Jose Fernandez and Shelby Miller too, Ryu fell to fourth in NL ROY voting – the sort of anonymous result which when combined with the spotlight commanded by his rotation mates led to Ryu being somewhat neglected in terms of recognition heading into 2014.
That’s exactly Ryu’s style though – quietly getting the job done without fanfare. The Korean’s stuff will certainly never command gobs of attention; sitting in between 88-92 mph, his fastball isn’t electric in the Stephen Strasburg-like sense, but he can accurately throw it to all four quadrants of the zone. Sure, he boasts an excellent fading changeup and a serviceable slider too, but neither possess the sort of filthy movement that draws both impartial eyes and high strikeout rates (7.2 SO/9 in 2013). He doesn’t even have effectively wild outings (6.10 K/BB rate in the second half last year), nor ever show any emotion on the mound, á la Chris Archer. Nondescript in every facet aside from his numerical performance, Ryu is, well… pretty boring to watch.
Not that the Dodgers mind right now; having started two games already, Ryu has pitched 12 scoreless innings, and was one horrific Brian Wilson outing away from winning twice before most every other starter had even thrown a pitch. In better shape than 2013, and with an improved curveball to boot (presumably to combat the reverse platoon splits he put up last year), Ryu has stepped it up a notch already this year – emerging as a true weapon rather than simply a reliable rotation presence.
With their staff so suddenly weakened, L.A. will be depending on their lesser known southpaw to be their de facto ace for a while; perhaps now with that increased attention upon him too, people will realize that Ryu is legitimately close to such territory already.