Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin pitches against the Chicago White Sox in an exhibition spring training baseball game in Glendale, Ariz., Sunday. / AP-Yonhap
By Kim Tong-hyung
After two spring-training starts, the discussion on Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Ryu Hyun-jin is back exactly where it was when he signed a six-year, $36 million deal in the winter. To have a shot at sustained Major League Baseball (MLB) success, Ryu has to be better than the one-trick, changeup pony he is now.
Ryu was hammered in his first preseason outing against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Monday (KST), giving up two runs on four hits, including a homerun, in two innings. His inability to finish off hitters stood out painfully as he needed 47 pitches to get out of those two innings, despite getting first-pitch strikes on eight of the 10 hitters he faced.
Ryu looked marginally better in his second outing against the Cleveland Indians Thursday, giving up two runs on three hits in three innings, while fanning five hitters. Still, it was obvious he wasn't overpowering major league hitters they way he did with Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) players for so many years.
After watching his outing against the Indians, Keith Law, one of America's most influential baseball journalists, came away unimpressed.
Writing for ESPN Insider, the premium online service for the sports media giant, Law said Ryu's performance against the Indians was disappointing and rated his fastball as below-average. He also observed that the Korean had a bad body and a peculiar delivery that were only salvaged by his above-average changeup and ability to throw strikes with different pitches.
Heo Koo-yeon, a former baseball manager and current MBC television color commentator, was underwhelmed as well after watching Ryu in person.
''The velocity on his fastball isn't there yet. It's slower than the fastballs he has thrown in the KBO the past few years,'' Heo told Korean reporters in Arizona.
''To be effective against major league hitters, Ryu's fastball has to sit comfortably at around 148 kilometers per hour. He has to bring his condition up.''
So far in spring training, Ryu's fastball has been clocked regularly at around 140 kilometers per hour and hasn't even touched 145 kilometers per hour.
Baseball has come easy for Ryu, the big, 26-year-old lefty who dominated Korean professional baseball right out of high school as a Hanwha Eagles rookie in 2006. As arguably Korean baseball's best starter in the past decade, Ryu led the domestic league several times in wins and strike outs, thanks to his effective fastball-changeup combination.
However, Ryu's fastball probably isn't an above-average pitch at the major league level, considering the superior bat speed and plate coverage of the hitters. While his changeup seems good enough to be relevant, a changeup without the threat of a fastball isn't much of a threat at all.
It remains to be seen whether Ryu can successfully retool himself as it seems certain that he won't be missing bats in America as frequently as he did in Korea. A decline in strikeout rates could be alarming for Ryu, who doesn't have the quality breaking pitches and pinpoint command to become a groundball pitcher.
With the duo of Cy Young hopefuls in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke leading a stacked starting rotation for the Dodgers, Ryu had hoped to established himself as the team's third or fourth starter. His stuff so far, however, has looked more suitable for a situational lefty out of the bullpen.