Crafty Ryu Hyun-jin rides slow curveball to win over Reds

August 21, 2023

Look up “crafty lefty” in a glossary of baseball terms, and you may find a picture of Ryu Hyun-jin, the South Korean starter for the Toronto Blue Jays and the living embodiment of those words.

Ryu was at it again in his latest start against the Cincinnati Reds, allowing only four singles and two runs — both unearned — over five innings in Toronto’s 10-3 win at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Sunday (local time).

Ryu is now 2-1 with a 1.89 ERA in four starts since returning from Tommy John surgery last summer. He has not allowed an earned run in 14 innings, covering his last three starts, after allowing four in five innings against the Baltimore Orioles in his season debut on Aug. 1.

Ryu is among a dying breed of pitchers in Major League Baseball (MLB), in that he doesn’t have overpowering stuff to dominate hitters. Against the Reds, Ryu’s four-seam fastball averaged only 87.4 mph while touching 89.6 mph.

On Saturday, Toronto reliever Jordan Hicks threw a 103.2 mph sinker, the fastest pitch in Blue Jays history. Ryu, on the other hand, barely got over 100 kph with some of his curveballs Sunday.

The bender was Ryu’s most effective pitch in this outing. The average velocity of that pitch was 68.8 mph, and Ryu didn’t need to throw those curveballs hard when he could locate them in the lower part of the strike zone so effectively.

Reds’ rookie sensation Elly De La Cruz got his first taste of Ryu’s breaking ball and came up empty twice.

In the third inning, De La Cruz went down swinging on a 66.2 mph curve that landed in the low inner part of the zone. Then in the fifth, De La Cruz stood frozen looking at a 66.7 mph curve that Ryu put in the bottom of the zone, over the middle of the plate.

It was the seventh and final strikeout of the day for Ryu. He struck out three with the curve, two with the fastball, and one each with the changeup and the cutter.

Asked how he’d grade his curveball, Ryu said he would give it 100 out of 100.

“I thought they were going to be very aggressive, so I tried to get ahead in counts,” Ryu said through a club interpreter, discussing his approach against the Reds. “That was a key point of my game, and I was able to do that. Our team was able to get us some runs early on in the game too.”

The Reds’ starting lineup featured six right-handed batters plus a switch hitter in De La Cruz, but they only managed four hits, all of them singles, against Ryu.

Ryu’s fastest pitch was an 89.6 mph fastball, while his slowest one was a 65.5 mph curveball. The 24.1 mph difference is basically unheard of in this day and age.

Ryu also mixed in his changeup, which sat around 76.6 mph. When batters have to contend with those slow curves and changeups, an 88 mph fastball can seem much faster than its actual velocity.

Since giving up a home run against the Orioles, Ryu has not surrendered a long ball in 14 innings. The Orioles also tagged him for three doubles in that game, but Ryu has allowed just one double since.