Dodgers southpaw Hyun-jin Ryu is an understated front of the rotation pitcher. It’s easy to focus on the injuries endured by the South Korea native and Korean Baseball Organization veteran, and state that as the lefty’s primary narrative. Simply stated, Ryu has been consistently good throughout his MLB career. Sure, you’ve got to punt 2016 due to injuries, but after posting Deserved Run Average (DRA) figures of 3.00 and 2.92 in 2014 and 2015, Ryu has followed up with 4.14 and 2.45 DRA during the last two seasons (while working respectable innings loads). There is not a team in baseball that wouldn’t take 15 starts of 2.45 DRA baseball in their rotation, which assessed against the 2018 National League is approximately 45 percent better than average.
Ryu is good. The Brewers have trouble in their must-win scenario.
Brewers bats have been sleeping throughout much of the Dodgers series, with their Game One outburst and Clayton Kershaw the highlight (the club was also roughly average in Game Three, capitalizing on a long start by rookie Walker Buehler with some third-time through the order heroics). Here’s the rub for the Dodgers: they have a relatively traditional rotation, in the sense that Ryu and company are the types of pitchers a manager would simply leave on the mound to get out of their own trouble in most cases. Ryu justified any such managerial faith in 2018, shifting his times-through-the-order On Base Percentage Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) from .585 (first time) to .682 (second time) and then .558 (third time) in a manner that suggests improvement throughout the game. For reference, the 2018 National League starters went .684 (first time) / .718 (second time) / .777 (third time), which means that Ryu was better than average each trip through the batting order, and substantially so in the much-maligned third trip. There’s a bit of a selection bias evident here, as Ryu only logged 65 batters faced in 13 games the third time through the order, meaning that if he was not knocked out of the game during his second trip through, he probably had his great stuff working.
|2018 Ryu||2018 Percentage||2018 Velocity||October % / Velocity||Brewers % / Velocity|
|Riding Fastball||32%||91||38% / 92||35% / 92|
|Cutter||25%||87 to 88||24% / 88||25% / 88 to 89|
|Change||18%||81 to 82||16% / 82||11% / 82|
|Curve||18%||74||15% / 73 to 74||14% / 74|
|Sinking Fastball||6%||90||6% / 92||15% / 91|
In terms of stuff and approach, I find it stunning how much “Ryu is Ryu.” While there’s some fidgeting against the Brewers in the League Championship Series, for the most part Ryu has been the same pitcher in October that he was throughout 2018. What is striking about that first LCS start against the Brewers is that Ryu went away from his change up and curveball, in favor of throwing more sinkers to Brewers batters. This strategy ostensibly was intended to keep the Brewers off of the cutter and potentially keep the ball on the ground, but only one of those outcomes worked; Brewers bats boasted a .333 batting average on the sinker, and slugged .667. The sinker did yield the highest percentage of groundballs for the southpaw, but not with the benefit of keeping the Brewers bats from squaring up the cutter. The cutter simply was not working in Game Two, as the Brewers nabbed their homer off of the pitch, slammed a couple of line drives, and only whiffed approximately 6 percent of cutters (which is not far from Ryu’s 8 percent whiff rate on the pitch for the season, to be fair).
|Ryu (13 Oct 2018)||Batting Average||Slugging||Strike Outs|
The secret to Ryu’s first start against the Brewers was those off-speed offerings, which the lefty can present to batters at two different speeds below his fastball, while also breaking the pitches to different sides of the plate. Both of these pitches offer Ryu distinct looks, and the Brewers were baffled by them the first time they faced the southpaw during the LCS. Zach Crizer noted that the Dodgers’ other notable lefty, Clayton Kershaw, leaned heavily on the spinners during his second outing against the Brewers, and used those offerings plus the shadows in Los Angeles to quiet the Brewers bats. This begs the question of whether Ryu was “too cute” in moving away from his bread-and-butter pitch mix for the 2018 season, and whether a similar pitch selection development is in store for Brewers bats in Game Six.
Miller Park will offer beautiful batting visibility for the close of the series, which raises another distinct advantage for Ryu’s slow stuff. First, Milwaukee mostly sat on the heavy stuff during their first meeting in Milwaukee, and Ryu did not see the Brewers at any other point in 2018. So working with the slow stuff will truly provide a new look against Brewers batters. Second, without shadows or any of the other afternoon oddities that have presented the series thus far, working with different break and three speed levels (four if you count the cutter) will allow Ryu to counteract the excellent batting conditions in Milwaukee. Working 92-83-74 is no joke, and if Ryu works from cutter to go 89-83-74 that’s not going to be a picnic either.
Thus the series rests on one crucial adjustment. Ryu can attempt to implement his Game Two plan once more, in an attempt to keep the ball on the ground and beat Brewers bats with his hardest stuff. Or he can change that edition of his pitching approach, in favor of his more familiar pitch mix from the season. The problem for the Brewers batters is that that pitch mix from the season was one that yielded great success for the southpaw: if Milwaukee has this adjustment in mind, they must seriously watch the change and curve, and look for Ryu to manipulate the ball in many different shapes. Given the Brewers’ success against the hard stuff during Game Two, expect a type of aggression from Milwaukee as well; if Milwaukee can see that cutter or one of the fastballs, and get a good swing on one, watch them swinging early in counts to drive that pitch. This will undoubtedly result in some frustrating one pitch plate appearances, but it could be the necessary antidote to late count off speed offerings.