Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)
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In 2006, a 19-year old Hyun-jin Ryu was drafted in the 1st round by the Hanwha Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization. While the southpaw received moderate hype as he transitioned to professional ball after being the ace of his high school team, nobody expected the numbers he’d put up in his rookie season:
- 18-6 win-loss record
- 201.2 innings
- 204 strikeouts against 52 walks
- 2.23 ERA/2.15 FIP
Oh, and his 18 wins, 204 strikeouts and 2.23 ERA led the league. That’s right, a teenager won the pitching triple crown of a professional baseball league. He also won the Korean League MVP award, which in hindsight is a great decision – his 7.8 WAR, according to Statiz, also led the league. People are freaking out about Chang-mo Koo this year; imagine their reaction to Ryu some-fourteen years ago.
But what does Ryu have in common with Felix Hernandez? Well, they are both fantastic pitchers. Between 2009 and 2015, Felix had a 2.83 ERA in 1596 IP; between 2006 and 2012, also 7 years, Ryu had a 2.80 ERA in 1269 IP.
Other than skill, not so much (for now). See that 18-6 record? It’s the result of a solid Hanwha Eagles team that won 67 games out of 126 in 2006, good for third place and a playoff berth. They got eliminated quickly, but the point is this: early Ryu had run support.
If you’re familiar with King Felix, you’ll know that he had little run support, And ‘little’ might be an understatement. During his five-year peak, here’s the Mariners’ win-loss record:
Children reading this article should cover their eyes – those numbers are atrocious. Felix brought his A-game every start, only for a lifeless Mariners offense to flail around like asphyxiating fish. The silver lining from this dark history is Hernandez’s Cy Young plaque in 2010, awarded to him despite a 13-12 record that threatened to belie a shining 2.27 ERA. Plus, he changed the way voters assess Cy Young candidates, benefiting the future of baseball.
But back to Ryu. Unfortunately for him, his good luck was about to fade. After finishing 3rd in 2006 and 2007, the Hanwha Eagles said “Hey, we’re sick of comfortably heading to the playoffs.” and decided to be bad. How bad, you ask? This is the Eagles’ win-loss record during the final four years of Ryu’s KBO career:
Look, it’s the Korean Mariners! You can start to see the Hernandez-Ryu convergence: two legendary starting pitchers tied to the fate of their respective teams.
The article could end here and work as a fun tidbit, but we haven’t discussed Hyun-jin Ryu’s 2012 season, arguably the most unfortunate season by a pitcher in modern baseball history. It’s important because that’s where the convergence completes. Here’s a comparison between Felix’s 2010 season and Ryu’s 2012 season:
You could argue that since Felix pitched more innings and gave up less runs, his unfortunate season is ‘greater’ than Ryu’s. But consider the following. The KBO plays around 20 fewer games than MLB does. The difference between 2.27 and 2.66 is less than half a run on average. And yet – Ryu failed to win more than 10 games, nor did he have a winning record. That’s astounding. Horrifying. Since MLB’s integration era, no pitcher has had (1) a W-L% of .500 or below and (2) a sub-3 ERA while (3) pitching 180+ innings.
So Ryu’s 2012, despite taking place in Korea, was historical. Below are some highlights of this (in)glorious season:
May 25th, Heroes vs. Eagles – 7 IP, 2 ER, 2 BB, and 10 Ks, a quality start. A two-run homer in the 8th might have given the Eagles and Ryu an easy win, but a blown save sends the game to extras. Eagles ultimately win 5:4 in the 10th, but Ryu gets the ND.
May 31st, Eagles vs. Lions – it’s vintage Ryu: 7 IP, 2 ER, 3 BB, and a monstrous 13 Ks. He leaves the game in a 2-2 tie, aaaaand the Eagles bullpen blows it in the 9th. Again. Another ND for Ryu; this pattern will become familiar.
July 1st, Eagles vs. Tigers – 7 IP, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 Ks. Is this enough support for the anemic Eagles? Nope! They lose 2:1, and Ryu is saddled with a loss.
August 17th, Eagles vs. Twins – 7 IP, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 Ks… and a loss for Ryu. Need I say more?
August 23rd, Wyverns vs. Eagles. This is one of the worst games of all-time, a stunning display of every on-field blunder imaginable by the Hanwha Eagles. Of the 5 runs Ryu gave up in this loss, only two were assigned to him because of plays like this…
…which prompts an understandable reaction:
As the months passed, it seemed increasingly unlikely that Ryu would reach the 11 pitcher wins needed to not only set a team record of 7 consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins, but also 100 career wins. Luckily, Ryu won 3 of his 4 starts in September while putting up a 1.33 ERA, giving him 9 wins before his final start. There’d be no 100, but 10 wins meant 99 – Ryu’s jersey number. There was hope.
And on October 4th, 2012 – the final day of the regular season – Hyun-jin Ryu became a Korean legend.
Its beginning was like any other Ryu start – strikeout after strikeout, helpless batters swinging at sliders in the dirt and admiring pretty curveballs. Maybe, just maybe this would be the victory that their ace pitcher so desperately deserved. Earlier that year, Ryu expressed his desire to play for an MLB team. This was likely the last chance at glory in Korea.
For Eagles fans, the young pitcher standing before them embodied their last remaining hopes and dreams. It had been a disastrous season, one that revealed the incompetence of the Eagles’ front office and the greedy Hanwha corporation funding it. Hyun-jin Ryu, like Felix Hernandez was for the Mariners, was their lone ray of light. Their King. Years had passed since his coronation; now began the bittersweet, yet exhilarating swan song.
Hyun-jin Ryu looked brilliant until the 6th inning, striking out 9 Nexen (now Kiwoom) Heroes batters while walking zero of them. Then, in the top of the 7th, this happened:
Just like that, Jung-ho Kang tied the game. Fans worried, but didn’t sweat – assuming Ryu gave up no more runs, all the offense needed to do was score one more run. One more! Surely, even the Eagles could accomplish this meager task.
After the solo home run, Ryu regained his composure and cruised through all 9 innings, ending up with 112 pitches and 11 strikeouts. But the game remained tied. And based on Ryu’s pitch count, it seemed like he was done for the day. The swan song neared its end.
This is when Hyun-jin Ryu became a legend.
In the 10th inning, Ryu lurched towards the mound for a final coda. A man who had thrown 112 pitches, who carried the team on his back the entire season – even making relief appearances – arrived to record three final outs. Here they are, uninterrupted:
Hyun-jin Ryu’s final pitching line: 10 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, 12 Ks.
Did the Hanwha Eagles complete their task of giving Ryu a measly second run of support?
The game stayed tied until the 12th inning, after which it was officially declared a draw. That’s it. No dramatic walk-off win. No bucket of water poured on Ryu’s head in celebration. The Hanwha Eagles ended where they began: in a lukewarm pool of mediocrity.
During a press conference, a normally stoic Ryu fought off tears as he thanked his teammates, coaches, and managers for his time with the Eagles, then elaborated on his plan to move onto the Major Leagues. Two months later, Hyun-jin Ryu signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a six-year, $36 million contract.
But even though Ryu got his wish, he never got the feel-good closure everyone agreed he deserved. He ended the 2012 season with 9 wins, one short of 10. He ended his KBO career with 98 wins, two short of 100. He delivered one of the greatest pitching performances of all time, only for a tragic offensive performance to taint it.
Many Korean baseball fans speculate what would have happened if a different team drafted Ryu all those years ago. The Samsung Lions, SK Wyverns, KIA Tigers. All teams with a culture of winning and championships. How many games would Ryu have won in a single season? 20? 25? How about in his career?
However, it’s because Ryu was a Hanwha Eagle that his legacy is so memorable. For one year, Hyun-jin Ryu became – no, surpassed – Felix Hernandez. Maybe not statistically, but in terms of how much one pitcher meant to a team. In 2012, Ryu was the Eagles, and the Eagles were Ryu. There is no way around it.
People who’ve only seen Ryu pitch for the Dodgers conclude that he’s had a cushy life – good offense, defense, and a pitcher-friendly stadium that lowers ERA and brings about pitcher wins. But his time with the Eagles tells a different story. For the 2020 season and onwards, he will be with the Toronto Blue Jays, facing AL East lineups loaded with lethal hitters. Those same people are worried that Ryu will get kicked around. But I’m not. He’s been in more difficult situations before. He’ll be fine.
He is, after all, King of the Hanwha Eagles.
Follow P365 KBO Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365