Back to the drawing board: The White Sox should shift their focus towards signing Hyun-Jin Ryu. (@Dodgers)
On Wednesday afternoon, the White Sox learned that they lost the bidding war for their primary pitching target, Zack Wheeler. The Philadelphia Phillies made a late push and eventually inked the righthander to a five-year, $118 million contract that will keep him in the NL East. It hurts when you come up empty on someone who was your priority, although it’s worth noting that the White Sox did offer Wheeler the most money, but it was his fiancee’s preference of being closer to home that ultimately led to signing with the Phillies.
Go figure. The one time the White Sox don’t make any moves to acquire family or friends of a free agent and they go the route of offering the most money yet they still come up empty. Wheeler would have been a great addition to a young pitching staff and would’ve had the opportunity to solidify himself near the top of the rotation for many years down the road, but it’s not the end of the world. There are still plenty of good free agent starters that the White Sox can shift their focus towards.
One starter the White Sox should make a run at is Hyun-Jin Ryu from the Los Angeles Dodgers. If Ryu was in any other free agent class, he would be more popular among teams looking for pitching, but he gets a little lost alongside Wheeler, Gerrit Cole, and Stephen Strasburg. Ryu is a bit of a unique situation, given the fact that he will be 33 at the start of next season, but has only had four full seasons where he’s made 20 or more starts.
Staying healthy has been a struggle for Ryu, especially in the early portion of his career. After debuting in 2013, he landed on the 60-day injured list four times with various shoulder, elbow, and groin injuries. Even with all of the injury history, he has still managed to put together a very successful career: Through 125 starts in six seasons, Ryu has a 2.98 career ERA with 665 strikeouts and 164 walks in 740 ⅓ innings. Those numbers have given him a 8.1 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, and a 1.16 WHIP, which is very respectable for a starting pitcher.
The Dodgers have been careful with Ryu returning from injury, making sure they didn’t stretch him out too long and trying to limit the stress he puts on his body. In 2019, Ryu had a much healthier season, and the results were incredible. He made 29 starts while posting a 2.32 ERA with 163 strikeouts and just 24 walks through 182 ⅔ innings. That earned Ryu his first All-Star appearance, and he ended the season second in Cy Young voting. Given his history, this might not have seemed like a possibility, but Ryu showed just how great he can be when he’s feeling like his normal self.
His success as a pitcher is due in large part to the fact that Ryu generates a lot of weak contact and ground balls. His career average exit velocity is 85.9, placing him below the league average of 87.5. In 2019, his average exit velocity was 85.3, which was good enough to place him in the top 4% in all of baseball. In 2019, Ryu generated a ground ball on 50.4% of batted balls, giving him a slightly better percentage than the 48.4% total for his career.
Ryu has a wide arsenal that consists of a four-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, changeup, curveball, and slider. His fastball isn’t overwhelming, registering in the low-to-mid 90s, and he pairs it with a changeup that sits in the mid-80s. However, Ryu’s ability to locate his pitches makes up for his below-average velocity and helps him generate the consistent weak contact and ground balls. He’s become a “master” of painting the edges of the strike zone, throwing 44.2% of his pitches throughout those areas and targeting places where batters struggle to barrel the ball.
All of the ballparks in the AL Central rank among the top 20 in baseball, with two in the top eight, for most average runs scored and average home runs per game. Bringing Ryu into the mix would be a welcoming change, as his pitching style would play well at those parks and he would be set up to have a successful run with the White Sox, assuming that he can continue to stay healthy. In addition, Ryu has always been a pitcher who doesn’t walk many batters. The most walks Ryu has allowed in a full season is 49 over 192 innings during his rookie year in 2013. The White Sox issued the sixth-most walks in baseball last season, and that has been a consistent trend over the last few years.
One factor that could help influence Ryu to sign with the White Sox is their recent addition in Yasmani Grandal. The two of them worked together during Grandal’s time in Los Angeles, and Grandal trails only A.J. Ellis as Ryu’s most frequent catcher. When working with Grandal for 28 games, Ryu has a 3.02 ERA with 45 walks and 139 strikeouts in 143 innings. That’s good for the second-best ERA among catchers who have worked with him for 20 or more games. The pair has had success being battery-mates, and a reunion on the South Side would be in both their best interests.
Ryu’s market seems less robust than the other pitchers at the moment, and while there hasn’t been any information linking the White Sox to the lefty, it would be wise for the team to get in contact with his agent. The only downside to this? Ryu’s agent is Scott Boras, and the White Sox haven’t had the best working relationship with him in the past. Knowing Boras and how he’s able to suck money out of teams better than anyone in the game, he might use Chicago’s recent failure with Wheeler as a way for them to pony up more money for Ryu. While there’s plenty of reasons as to why Ryu makes a lot of sense and why it would be worth it to sign him, spending a lot of money on him is a risk given his injury history.
As a Plan B after failing on Plan A, Ryu makes a lot of sense for the White Sox. He’s a ground ball pitcher who doesn’t allow much hard contact, and he’s lefthander who would bring balance to the rotation. In 2019 not only was Ryu healthy, he looked like a guy who can pitch at the top of a rotation. There is risk involved with this signing, but it’s a risk the White Sox should be willing to take.