In an offseason that is giving $118 million to someone like Zack Wheeler, you would think that teams would be printing money to get the defending ERA leader. Yet, that does not even seem close to being the case. Hyun-Jin Ryu is not getting the respect he deserves on the free agent market, and a team with a pitching need could use that to their advantage.
Just How Good Has Hyun-Jin Ryu Been?
Since he came back from injury in 2018, Hyun-Jin Ryu has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. Among 55 pitchers who have pitched at least 200 innings since he came back from injury, Ryu ranks second in the MLB in ERA with a 2.22 ERA. The only man he is behind is Jacob deGrom, who has won the last two National League Cy Young Awards. Some people disregard ERA with pitchers like Ryu and point to fielding independent pitching (FIP). But, even as someone who is not a strikeout machine, Ryu is 7th in FIP in this time frame with a 3.06 FIP. Part of this is thanks to him having the lowest walk rate in the MLB since he came back from injury in 2018 (3.1%). His FIP during this time frame is also better than Zack Wheeler’s and Stephen Strasburg’s. Ryu is also great at getting soft contact along with his lack of walks. Among 198 pitchers who allowed at least 200 batted balls, Ryu was 19th in hard-hit rate (30.8%), 13th in barrel rate (4.7%), and 6th in average exit velocity (85.3 MPH). This, and many other factors led him to being the 2019 runner-up for NL Cy Young.
The Value of Youth and Velocity
Now, no one is saying that Hyun-Jin Ryu should be getting a Gerrit Cole- or even Stephen Strasburg-type deal. He is heading into his age-33 season and does not have the postseason track record that they do. And, I would not even say that Ryu should be getting more than Zack Wheeler in overall value. But, he should definitely be making more annually, and that is not what people are projecting will be happening. MLB Trade Rumors had their top 50 free agents with predictions at the beginning of the offseason, and had Wheeler signing a 5-year/$100 million deal, and Ryu signing a 3-year/$54 million deal. If you haven’t done the math already, that is $20 million annually for Wheeler versus $18 million annually for Ryu. This is despite the fact that since Ryu came back from injury in 2018, his ERA is over a full run lower than Wheeler’s (2.22 vs. 3.55). This is while Ryu also has a lower FIP than Wheeler (3.06 vs. 3.34).
The difference between Ryu and Wheeler is age and velocity. Wheeler is entering his age-30 season, and Ryu is entering his age-33 season. Teams may be expecting a decline from Ryu, although he is showing zero signs of such a decline. This is why he should be looking for a short deal with a lot of average annual value. What also made Wheeler an attractive option was his rise in velocity. From 2017 to 2018 to 2019, his average fastball velocity has gone from 94.8 MPH to 95.8 MPH to 96.8 MPH. Ryu’s fastball velocity, meanwhile, has sat between 90.3 and 91.4 MPH his entire career. Throwing harder means more margin for error, and it seems that teams like that idea with Zack Wheeler.
What contract should Ryu be getting?
If you are looking for someone who was in a similar situation as Ryu on the free agent market recently, then Jake Arrieta is that person. Arrieta was heading into his age-32 season when he was a free agent going into 2018. He got a 3-year/$75 million deal with the Phillies; good for a $25 million average annual value. The only significant difference between Ryu’s situation and Arrieta’s was that Arrieta was visibly declining, while Ryu is not. Arrieta’s ERA from 2015 to 2016 to 2017 went from 1.77 to 3.10 to 3.53. His FIP went from 2.35 to 3.52 to 4.16 on top of that. Ryu, meanwhile, just had the best season of his career. So, you could argue that Ryu should be getting more than Arrieta did, especially in this offseason.
Hyun-Jin Ryu should be getting at the very least, $25 million annually for three or four years. If I were his agent, I would be starting be negotiations at $30 million annually. If he is asking for the amount that MLB Trade Rumors is predicting, which has been relatively accurate so far, then teams should be jumping at the opportunity to sign him.
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