For a pitcher who speaks very little English, and has thrown three spring training innings in his major-league career, Hyun-Jin Ryu has revealed a lot about who he is as a pitcher in a short time.
Ryu started and threw two innings against the Angels on Friday, allowing four hits, two runs (both earned), walking one and striking out three. As is usually the case in spring training, the numbers didn’t really tell the story.
Mike Trout was batting leadoff for the Angels, a big challenge to kick off Ryu’s second Cactus League game. The left-hander showed Trout all his pitches — a fastball, curveball and changeup — and got ahead in the count. Trout fouled off a changeup on 1-2; Ryu later said he was surprised Trout got a piece of the pitch at all. The reigning American League rookie of the year eventually worked the count full and drew a walk. It was a good at-bat for both the pitcher and the hitter, but Ryu said it was his biggest disappointment.
“I noticed (Trout) was taking pitches, maybe to familiarize himself with me as well,” Ryu said through an interpreter.
Here’s the kicker: Ryu had no idea who Mike Trout is before today. After the game, a reporter informed him that Trout is “the best hitter in the league,” and mercifully left it at that without launching into an explanation of the different methods for computing WAR. (That might have been tough on the interpreter.)
Think about that for a second. Trout could have been the worst hitter in the league for all Ryu knew. He was going to throw the pitches that catcher Tim Federowicz called and aim for the mitt. That’s the approach, and it’s the same for Mike Trout as it is for Bill Hall.
“(The goal is) for me to learn hitters through hands-on experience and to listen to the catcher,” Ryu said.
Then, Ryu did something he wasn’t planning on doing for at least another two weeks: He threw a slider. Federowicz didn’t call for a slider; Ryu shook him off until he got the sign he wanted. The catcher set up inside but the pitch caught too much of the plate. Hamilton, suddenly finding his his mid-season form, turned on the pitch, launching it over an insurance ad on the right-center field wall.
“It was earlier than I had planned,” Ryu said of throwing his slider, “but I wanted to see how Josh would react.”
Unlike Trout, Ryu said he’s heard of Hamilton before. Maybe that’s because Hamilton has had more international television exposure, starring in marquee events like the 2008 Home Run Derby and the 2010 and 2011 World Series. It was the only slider Ryu threw in the game and the only one he’s thrown in spring training, including bullpen sessions.
“It was a mistake pitch,” Ryu said. “I learned from it.”
The circumstances were similar when Ryu threw one curveball in his debut inning against the Chicago White Sox last Sunday. DeWayne Wise pulled it loudly for a triple down the right-field line. Sandy Koufax had been working with Ryu on the curve, and Ryu admitted that he hadn’t developed a good feel for it yet.
On Friday, Ryu reverted to his familiar, pre-Koufax curveball grip.
“It’s tough getting adjusted to the ball,” he said. “To implement what Koufax taught me, that’s another great step.”
As Ryu learns more about Major League Baseball, the league is learning something about him too. He isn’t blindly obedient to Sandy Koufax and he’s gutsy enough to shake off his catcher in a critical situation. Sure, it’s only spring training, but the 25-year-old rookie threw Josh Hamilton a pitch he hadn’t even practiced on a 3-2 count with a runner on first and a 1-0 lead — all in the name of learning how one of the most dangerous hitters on the planet will react to his slider.
“I don’t know if it’s gutsy,” Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. “He called for it. I’m not saying it’s the best time to work on a pitch he hasn’t thrown in practice.”
The confidence that so impressed Dodgers personnel after watching Ryu pitch in Korea and meeting him in person is starting to play itself out on a major-league mound. Three innings into his career, it’s been fascinating to watch.