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How Ryu Hyun-jin has evolved into a monster pitcher

Posted May. 31, 2019 07:26,   

Updated May. 31, 2019 07:26


This season, Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin is acing it on all fronts. Currently, Ryu stands as the only pitcher in the Major League Baseball with a lower-than two-points ERA (1.65). He is also the only player whose number of four balls per nine innings is lower than one at 0.55. His ratio of strikeouts to four balls stands at a whopping 15.5 when no one else has managed to reach even 10. The number of balls thrown per inning is also the lowest at 13.73. The South Korean has won seven wins so far, one of the best records among the National League pitchers.

He has got the full package. Standing 190 centimeter tall and weighing 118 kilograms, his physique is more than impressive. Despite such a colossal build, Ryu is flexible as well. He controls his massive physique with a smooth and delicate precision. His exceptional dexterity meant that he was quick to learn new types of breaking ball. His intelligence allowed him to reach the batter’s mind like nobody’s business. After all, it is the brains that separate A-grade players from B-graders in any sports.

Batters could not handle him. He achieved the Triple Crown (best records in the number of wins, strikeouts and ERA) in 2006 when he had just debuted in professional baseball fresh off high school. He wrote history of Korean baseball, winning the Rookie’s award and MVP at the same time. Moving to America, he snatched 14 wins for two years in a row in 2013 and 2014. Nothing seemed to get in this baseball genius from South Korea. For baseball fans, he was the subject to praise, not appraise. The only message we got from his performance was that “god is unfair.”

Then, he lost everything at once. First it was his shoulder, which led him to surgery bed. For a pitcher who has undergone a shoulder operation, the chance for a full recovery stands merely at 7 percent. Almost two years were wasted. Even worse, his elbow was injured, and his adductor muscle, a crucial part that delivers the power from the legs to the torso, was damaged, too. His ball was not the same anymore, and recovery seemed to be a dream out of reach.

It is nearly impossible for any player to make recovery under such circumstances. But Ryu didn’t just recover; he evolved. The change is remarkable. His ball speed has dropped, but his control has become extremely accurate. He threw his balls mostly on the borders of the strike zone. Any contact was likely to lead to a grounder, and any inaction contributed to his strikeouts. The South Korean also studied the videos of Dallas Keuchel, the pitcher of the Houston Astros, adding the new ammunition of cut fastball to his list of weaponry. Instead of challenging the batters head-on, Ryu boosted his efficiency and made his balls even more elusive with various types of breaking balls (two-seam, change-up, curve, and cut fastball).

Ryu is even in control of his injury. In the game with the St. Louis Cardinals last month, he volunteered for replacement after detecting some symptoms in his adductor muscle. In May last year, he had a three-month break owing to the same part. Back then, he ignored the signs and pressed ahead with the schedule. Now, he has learned his lessons from the past. He is decisive enough to take a step back for a big leap forward.

He is completely rebuilding himself as pitcher from the way he throws balls and manages his body. He has lost a lot of things through his injury, but he has made a remarkable growth in the process of fighting it. His strongest suit is not his physique, not his flexibility, nor is it his intelligence; it lies in his ability to redefine any circumstances he is under. When faced with a hardship, he managed to redefine it as a phrase he has to go through for a higher level. If he hadn’t gone through any difficulty, he would have remained the same pitcher with 14 wins a season. Our life is filled with hardships and frustration as well. If you are strong enough to fight the urge to give up, you can turn any disaster into a good fortune, any failure into a success. Along with his balls, Ryu is throwing this message for the world we live in.

Eun-Taek Lee nabi@donga.com