Dodgers’ Ryu Hyun-jin’s Cy Young case hurt by recent struggles

August 30, 2019

Through the second week of August, Ryu Hyun-jin had been pitching better than he ever had in his Major League Baseball (MLB) career.

But since then, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ left-hander has been slumping like never before.

What was building up like a Cy Young-worthy campaign has turned sour over the past three starts for the South Korean. He was charged with seven earned runs on 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings in a 11-5 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix on Thursday (local time). That makes it 18 earned runs in the past 14 2/3 innings in Ryu’s last three starts, all of them losses, and his ERA jumped from 1.45 to 2.35 in that span.

His ERA still leads MLB, which illustrates just how dominant Ryu had been until he hit this rough patch.

Prior to this three-game span, Ryu had allowed 23 earned runs in 22 starts over 142 2/3 innings. With a tidy 12-2 record and a 1.45 ERA, Ryu was considered a front-runner for the National League (NL) Cy Young Award.

But on Aug. 17, Ryu served up a pair of home runs while giving up four runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Atlanta Braves. He suffered his first loss in nearly two months.

Then came another loss on Aug. 23, when the New York Yankees drilled him for three home runs and seven runs in 4 1/3 innings. Then on Thursday, Ryu once again failed to make it out of the fifth inning. After three shutout innings, Ryu imploded for four runs in the fourth and three more in the fifth, when the Diamondbacks touched him for five consecutive two-out hits.

Ryu had never allowed four or more runs in three consecutive starts, or seven or more runs in back-to-back starts, until Thursday.

The Diamondbacks were 5-for-8 with men in scoring position against Ryu, who entered the game having allowed just 16 hits in 108 at-bats in that situation all season.

And four of those five Arizona hits with runners in scoring position came with two outs. Before this game, Ryu had limited opponents to just .115 batting average (6-for-52) with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Because he is a finesse pitcher who won’t overwhelm hitters with pure stuff, Ryu’s margin of error is quite slim. He has to hit his spots with his pitches, or major league hitters will tee off on them. Cutters and changeups aren’t missing as many bats as earlier in the year.

Fatigue may be setting in for the 32-year-old with a history of shoulder and elbow problems. He has now reached 157 1/3 innings, the most he’s thrown in a season since 192 innings from his rookie year in 2013. Ryu missed the entire 2015 season with shoulder injury, and made only one start in 2016 before shutting things down with elbow issues.

The Dodgers are still well on their way to their seventh straight NL West division title. After losing the last two World Series, the Dodgers will have their sights firmly set on ending their 31-year title drought this fall.

And with their bullpen taking fans on a roller coaster ride on a daily basis, the Dodgers will need their starters to eat up significant innings come postseason — and Ryu to return to his pre-August form.

The NL Cy Young race has become wider open than a few weeks ago, though the South Korean may still have an inside track over the likes of Max Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom, the past two winners.

Scherzer missed more than a month of action for the Washington Nationals over the summer and returned on Aug. 22, but he didn’t go beyond five innings in either of his first two starts since the comeback. Scherzer is 9-5 and has a 2.46 ERA with 200 strikeouts, 63 more than Ryu in 14 2/3 fewer innings.

DeGrom, the New York Mets’ ace who beat out Scherzer for last year’s Cy Young, has a 2.66 ERA with an NL-leading 214 strikeouts in 169 innings. He is a pedestrian 8-8, after giving up four earned runs in seven frames against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday. Ryu, Scherzer and DeGrom are tied in walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) at 1.02.

Other pitchers all have their own flaws. Atlanta Braves’ rookie Mike Soroka has a 2.44 ERA but trails Ryu in wins (12 to 10), strikeouts (137 to 113) and WHIP (1.02 to 1.09). Ryu’s LA teammate, three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, has come on strong of late, with a 13-3 record and a 2.76 ERA. But his strikeout numbers aren’t quite up to his old standards, with 159 in 150 innings. Cincinnati Reds’ Luis Castillo appeared to be a dark horse in the race, but he’s fallen off the pace with a 5.70 ERA in August.