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Hyun-Jin Ryu is an unconventional ace

A pitcher with a 90 mph fastball is the best in baseball.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Sometimes, dominance is easy to recognize. When Max Scherzer blows away batter after batter, there’s no doubt he’s among the best in the game. Other times, it’s more subtle.

Dodgers ace Hyun-Jin Ryu doesn’t rack up tons of strikeouts. His average fastball is only 90.6 mph, which places in the ninth percentile for velocity. It seems the only thing he does exceedingly well is prevent runs.

This does not compute. Run prevention itself is not a skill. It is a byproduct of velocity, movement, location, mixing pitches, scouting, luck, and even more factors. With such a modest fastball and only a 21.9 percent strikeout rate, Ryu seems more like an up-jumped indy leaguer than MLB’s best pitcher. Nevertheless, here’s how he ranks in run prevention this season:

  • 1.45 ERA (MLB best)
  • 284 ERA+ (MLB best, third best single season mark in baseball history!)
  • 66 FIP- (sixth in MLB)
  • 50 DRA- (fourth in MLB)

Make no mistake: Ryu is compiling one of the greatest pitching seasons in MLB history, nad it doesn’t seem to be an anomaly. Last year, he posted a 1.97 ERA across 82 23 innings. He’s been to the injured list twice this season, but with 142 23 innings, he currently qualifies to lead the league in rate stats. With 20 more innings, he can put his name in the record books.

All of this is fantastic, but how is he doing it? Everything we know about modern baseball indicates that pitchers need strikeouts to succeed, yet Ryu is surpassing everyone with a pitch-to-contact style. How does he keep hitters so off-balance?

Pitch Mix

Let’s say a normal left-handed pitcher features a fastball, changeup, slider and curveball. Against lefties he shelves his changeup, and against righties he doesn’t use the slider. Essentially, he’s now two different three-pitch pitchers, depending on which batter’s box is occupied. This example describes almost every starting pitcher in baseball.

Ryu utilizes five different pitches (per Baseball Savant), which very few pitchers can boast. Even more impressively, he throws all five to both lefties and righties!

Ryu’s Pitch Mix

Pitch % vs. LHH % vs. RHH % vs. All Batters
Pitch % vs. LHH % vs. RHH % vs. All Batters
Four-Seamer 36.1 24.6 27.8
Changeup 19.5 31.0 27.8
Cutter 16.9 20.8 19.7
Sinker 15.0 12.9 12.8
Curve 12.4 10.7 11.9

No matter what kind of batter steps in against Ryu, they have five different pitches to worry about. He’s the only pitcher in baseball who doesn’t throw a single pitch more than 28 percent of the time, but throws five pitches at least 11 percent.

However, this is not his only means of deception. Here’s his pitch mix based on the count (again, courtesy of Baseball Savant):

Not only will he throw any of his five pitches to any batter, he’ll also throw them in just about any count! Okay, he only uses three pitches on 3-0, but the rest of the time all five are in play. It’s nearly impossible for the batter to know what’s coming.

Movement and Location

It’s great that Ryu can throw five pitches at any time, but if they’re not high quality it wouldn’t matter much. As we’ve already established, he doesn’t throw hard at all. His pitches have to find other ways of missing barrels.

This is what his pitch movement looks like (you can see it more clearly here):

The red numbers indicate top level movement compared to other pitchers. The light red is top 20 percent, and the dark red is top five. The blue numbers are the opposite— dark blue means bottom fifth percentile.

Obviously, dark red numbers are excellent. However, given that we’re talking about pitch movement, the blue numbers might be good, too. Ryu’s four-seamer has far less vertical break than most pitchers. That may give the illusion of a “rising fastball.” The point is, both red and blue numbers show pitches that move differently than almost any other pitcher’s. If you’re trying to fool a hitter, different is good!

Four of his five pitches are either red or blue on both vertical and horizontal movement, and the cutter is blue on just horizontal. This means he throws five pitches that look almost nothing like any other pitch the batter will face all year.

Finally, here’s where he releases his pitches:

All five pitches are released at the same point! Upon leaving his hand, he gives no indication which pitch is coming.

To recap, Ryu mixes five pitches with unique movement in any count to any batter with the same exact release point. It’s no wonder batters can’t square him up. Since there’s no way to tell what pitch is coming, maybe they should just keep their bats on their shoulders and hope for the best. There’s just one problem with that strategy: his 3.1 percent walk rate is also the best in MLB!

It appears the only way to beat him is to hit the ball hard. Given how difficult that must be, it’s no wonder he’s posting the best numbers in baseball.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.