Ryu's value to Dodgers may be as a reliever -- for now
Though transition smooth, Korean could use time adjusting to American game
Think David Wells. Consider Sid Fernandez. Picture Fernando Valenzuela. Physically, that's who I'm reminded of when I watch Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu on the mound.
This offseason, the Dodgers signed the 6-foot-2, 215-pound left-hander out of the Korean Baseball Organization, a competitive professional league. He pitched for the last-place Hanwha Eagles.
In 2006, Ryu was voted the league's Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year.
Ryu, now 25, was a pitcher in high school; he was also a slugger. When Ryu was 10, his father encouraged him to pitch left-handed. He does everything else with his right hand, even hitting, he just pitches as a lefty. Ryu underwent Tommy John surgery before turning professional, and since then, he hasn't been able to show his hitting prowess. But with a little fine-tuning, the Dodgers may have a hidden bonus when he steps the plate.
Ryu is adjusting well to life in the U.S. He traveled in the past while playing international baseball, and as a result, he feels comfortable in his new environment.
Clubs have been scouting Ryu since he was 18. One of his most memorable outings was against Japan in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Pitching for Korea in the deciding game, Ryu threw 8 2/3 shutout innings. Korea won, 1-0, to win the gold medal.
I have been able to scout two of Ryu's performances this spring. Overall, he has made three appearances, covering six innings. Ryu has given up eight hits and four earned runs. He has walked two and struck out nine. Ryu's ERA at this early juncture is 6.00, and his WHIP is 1.67. The opposition is hitting .320 off him so far.
While pitching in Korea, Ryu had a very fine 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, as well as a 2.80 career ERA. But that was then, and this is now.
Ryu uses a bit of a different method to warm up prior to home games. He begins by throwing in the bullpen, then sits for a short period of time. When the game begins and the Dodgers are batting, Ryu throws in the bullpen for the entire half-inning before entering the game when the Dodgers take the field.
Meeting with the media after the second outing I scouted, Ryu indicated that he is adjusting to the difference in hitters in the American game, noting that the strength and power of Major Leaguers is a challenge. He is used to Korean hitters fouling off pitch after pitch with a different hitting style than he is seeing so far, and is also used to hitters relying more on hand-eye coordination than pure power.
Prior to his first two outings, Ryu had not been briefed about the hitters he would encounter. Every hitter he would face would become a new experience. He was literally learning on the job.
Without making excuses, Ryu noted that the baseball is different in the U.S., saying that it's a bit slippery, and he is adjusting to the difference in the seams and the feel.
At this point of his transition, Ryu is totally dependent on his catcher for pitch sequencing. In the two outings I watched, he worked quickly and threw whatever pitches his catcher requested.
The repertoire I saw included a fastball that hit 91 mph, a high-quality changeup, a slow curve and a slider. At times, the fastball lacked zip and topped out at the high 80s.
Ryu spent time with Hall of Fame legend Sandy Koufax in camp, and though he got some instruction on his curveball, he returned to his normal way of throwing the curve in his first two outings. He said that he was just more comfortable returning to the methods he had always used.
I have some concerns about Ryu's ability to consistently retire Major League hitters.
Although it is the basic pitch of his arsenal, Ryu's fastball appears to be rather straight. To his credit, he doesn't reach back and overthrow. Rather, Ryu's mechanics are very sound, and he repeats his delivery with discipline and resolve. His presence on the mound indicates no fear or trepidation being in a new, unfamiliar environment facing unfamiliar hitters.
Ryu's best and most effective pitch is a very good changeup. He can use the pitch as an "out pitch" after setting up the hitter with a fastball or mediocre curve. His slider is by far his least-developed pitch.
The dry weather in Arizona makes it more difficult to get extensive rotation on the ball, and that may be affecting Ryu's breaking pitches.
I did not see Ryu work hitters inside in either outing. He generally kept the ball away. When he made a mistake, he got too much of the plate.
Although two outings may not be conclusive, what I have seen has me wondering about Ryu serving as a starter. For now, I think he is best suited to pitching out of the bullpen and continuing to prepare for a role as a starter. At this early stage of his transition, I think he is very hittable and needs more time to adjust.
It appears Ryu is learning every day and accepting challenges with a very positive attitude. He is navigating his way in an entirely new baseball world.
Think David Wells. Consider Sid Fernandez. Picture Fernando Valenzuela. Hyun-Jin Ryu may look like them on the mound. Now he hopes he can have the same type of success.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.