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The Blue Jays get their Ace – a case of Déjà Vu

A few years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays brought in someone to be their ace and there are some similarities this offseason

 

 

 

 

What I’m about to say may come across as odd, so brace yourself. After the late December Free Agent signing of Hyun-Jin Ryu, I’ve had many flashbacks to the December 2013 trade and sign of R.A. Dickey. Would that be called a Déjà Ryu, or a Dickey Vu? I’m not sure.

 

Coincidentally, both players made debuts of sorts in 2013 –Dickey his Blue Jays debut, Ryu his MLB debut. Both were acquired from the Jays after they won the NL Cy Young, or were the runner up. Now, obviously there are vast differences in both circumstances – from the tendencies of the pitchers to the Blue Jays’ competitive goals at the time of the acquisitions. However, the way these pitchers are perceived by some of the fan base is quite similar. Specifically there are three sentiments which seem to be echoed in both cases: 1) The Blue Jays get their Ace, 2) He doesn’t throw hard, but he’s different…, and 3) He’s on the wrong side of 30 but he’ll age well.

 

As I compare what eventually happened with Dickey, I’m going to raise some thoughts about Ryu. Some raise concern, while others are optimistic. The choice will be up to you on which signing will be more successful.

 

Before I get started, I do need to hit some low hanging fruit and get something off my chest. First, yes the 2019 transaction is infinitely better, as unlike with R.A. Dickey, they didn’t need to trade Noah Syndergaard to acquire Hyun-Jin Ryu. And second, the Blue Jays aren’t hamstrung – as they don’t need to dedicate a career 73 wRC+ catcher every 5th day for all of Ryu’s starts (*Josh Thole reference*).

 

  1. The Blue Jays get their ace

R.A. Dickey arrived to the Blue Jays after three impressive seasons, where he mastered his knuckleball, with the New York Mets. Using ERA- (ERA minus, a park and league adjusted version of ERA, with 70 being excellent, 100 being average, and 125 being awful), Dickey had a very successful 78 ranking during the three years prior to becoming a Blue Jay. However, Dickey failed to put up ace level metrics, as during his four year tenure with the Jays he came back to earth with an average ERA- of 100.5 over that time. This isn’t bad, of course, just not a performance on the level of an ‘ace’.

 

Ryu has an extensive and polished track record, and some of the metrics on his baseball card illustrate how he can perform at an ace-level calibre. From 2013-2019 (with some injury shortened seasons) Ryu had the 17th best ERA- at 79 (of the 215 qualified starting pitchers). In addition to that, from 2017-2019 Ryu had the 22nd best FIP at 3.62 (of 104 starting pitchers with a minimum of 300 IP over that period).

 

To add some context related to starting pitcher FIP and recent contention, of the top 8 teams in starting pitcher FIP in 2019, 5 made the playoffs or wildcard. Ryu has the ability to significantly anchor not only the current Blue Jays rotation, but a team’s rotation which aims to contend in the near future.

 

  1. He doesn’t throw hard, but he’s different…

This is true, in the case of both pitchers, neither were/are labelled as flame throwers hitting 99 on the radar gun. This leads to the aforementioned statement, and the corresponding assumption that their success can be prolonged –with less fear of directly losing effectiveness and velocity on their pitches as they age.

 

In the case of Dickey, after his success with the Mets, he wasn’t immune to the harshness of the AL East. He saw his ERA jump from 2.95 during his Mets tenure, to a 4.07 ERA in his four Blue Jay seasons. Specifically, comparing his time with the Mets and Blue Jays, he saw his ‘hard hit’ rate jump 4% (from 23.2% to 27.2%), and his HR/FB rate saw an increase of almost 3% (from 9.3% to 11.9%).

 

Ryu has always had a solid HR/FB rate, with a career average of 11.3% HR/FB, and his 2019 HR/FB rate of 13% was ranked 18th in the league (of the 49 starting pitchers with a min. 170 IP). So even if he sees a jump in that rate, there is enough wiggle room that he can still have excellent production. Further, he historically excels at keeping the ball on the ground. From 2017-2019, Ryu has the 29th best GB% rate of 47.4% (of 104 starting pitchers with a min. of 300 IP over that time).

 

In this home run era, it’s interesting to note that ESPN’s 2019 ballpark factors ranks Rogers Centre 1st in Home Runs, with Dodger Stadium 9th. Pitching half his starts in a more home run friendly park could play a factor in his ongoing results (as well as no longer playing frequently in the NL East’s ball parks – some ranking in the bottom third in the league for Home Runs, Oracle park specifically ranking at 30th).

 

The AL East can be (and usually is) a meat grinder for pitchers, and this may dampen Ryu’s tenure in Toronto. On the other hand, his skill set of low HR/FB rate and high GB% may help him smoothly translate into his new domain.

 

  1. He’s on the wrong side of 30, but he’ll age well.

This depends on the definition of ‘age well’. There is aging well in performance vs. aging well in volume of innings pitched. We touched on quality of performance earlier, here we’ll talk about quantity.

 

R.A. Dickey, love him or hate him, was the very example of an innings eater. Wasn’t always pretty, wasn’t always clean, wasn’t always smooth – but he did log those innings. In his 3 seasons with the Mets in 2010-2012, he averaged over 200 IP each season. Over the following 4 seasons in Toronto, he threw over 820 innings for the Blue Jays. For some context, from his age 38 season and onward, he threw 40% of his career innings with the Blue Jays. Including his season in 2017 with the Braves, and he threw 48% of his career innings from his age 38 season and onward. So in that context, yes he did age well!

 

Prior to his MLB debut, Ryu logged over 1200 innings in 7 seasons in the KBO. However, since debuting in the MLB he really hasn’t been able to consistently log innings anywhere near that level. Since he debuted in 2013, he’s only had 4 ‘good’ seasons (seasons with 126 or more innings). If you remove Ryu’s injury shortened seasons, his MLB season average is in the range of 140-160 innings pitched.

 

We could look at the context of starting pitching workload and playoff contention. Last year, if we look at the top 13 teams in percentage of innings pitched by the starting rotation, 7 of the 10 playoff teams were in this top category.  If we look further, of the ten 2019 playoff teams, they averaged 854 innings pitched by their starting rotation (about 59% of the season’s innings). It seems having an effective and productive rotation may not be enough on its own, and logging substantial innings can be required for playoff contention.

 

Do we expect Ryu to improve his innings output in his age 33 season and beyond? Probably not. Whether due to injuries or mileage on his arm, chances are he’s not going to be a consistent innings eater in his Blue Jay’s tenure. Based on his historical average, will he be able to anchor a playoff rotation by pitching enough of those (approx. 854) innings? Time will tell.

 

Déjà Vu

As outlined, there are some perceived similarities between these two pitcher acquisitions. With the shamble of a dumpster fire the 2019 Blue Jays rotation was, it is a safe assumption Ryu will bring improvement and a degree of stability. Although as fans we’re currently satisfied with any form of improvement, or eventual goals will be higher – that of playoff contention. Will Ryu be an ace calibre pitcher, will he falter in the AL East, and will he pitch enough innings? Maybe, or maybe not. If so, we can have a future post about a different Déjà Vu – a post of similarities relating to the 2015 Blue Jays.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.

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Pete McCombie

Pete is an avid baseball fan - primarily focusing on the Toronto Blue Jays. Once a timid fan in his adolescence, a 54 home run season won his heart over. He could be heard screaming triumphantly one October evening after an infamous bat flip. Approximately 12 months later, he reacted similarly to the Donaldson Dash. He eagerly awaits the next chapter of October jubilation for his team.