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Rays Playoff Preview: How to beat Hyun-Jin Ryu

There are two possible approaches.

Toronto Blue Jays v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Rays Wild Card opponent has been set with the Blue Jays, with the AL East rival falling to the No. 8 seed. Although Montoyo is considering various possibilities (Matt Shoemaker?) for Game 1, the Rays will meet Montoyo’s ace — Hyun-Jin Ryu — at least once in this series.

He’s the best they’ve got, so let’s take a look at him.

Ryu uses 5-pitches that confuse hitters

Ryu’s greatest strength is the mix and command of 5-pitches. Below is a representation of only the Shadow zone so that you can see his pitching strategy more clearly.

Against a RHB, he is throwing down and away his Changeup and Sinker, up and in the 4-Seam Fastball, down and in the Curveball, and going backdoor/frontdoor with Cutters. He is an suped-up, more complex version of Ryan Yarbrough.

And these generalizations are not that easy. He throws all 5-pitches all over the zone. It is too difficult to prepare for all these possibilities.

It may be better for a batter to aim for a particular type of pitch. However, Ryu has demonstrated he can change his pitching plan right away when he finds out that batters are looking for one in particular. Again, this is possible because he has as many as five options. This is the hardest part for Ray hitters.

Rays has faced the Ryu twice this year (7/24, 8/22), so they have experienced the 5-pitches experience already.

On July 24, he threw the most Changeups, Cutters and 4-Seam Fastballs, but on August 22, he threw a lot of 4-Seam Fastballs, Changeup and Curveballs.

He throws all five pitches after two-strikes situation, too. And in each game, the pitches that he often threw in that situation changed.

Here are some of those pitches at work:

Cash is intimately aware of what the Korean lefty can bring, recently saying of Ryu, “ [...] for my best guess they’re going to be fairly creative with the rest of the games and just continue to give us different looks (with their pitchers). We’ve seen how that works as the team that does it. It’s not that fun to go against it.”

I don’t want to see the Rays play a guessing game with him, so what is a proper plan against Ryu?

Plan A: Dig in for the Long Ball

Postseason games often become a long ball competition. It may be wiser to aim for a long ball rather than consecutive hits in a postseason, because batters are facing only quality pitchers.

And yet, Ryu has recently shown another pattern. After allowing the Nationals and Yankees a lot of long balls, he had extremely reduced four-seam/sinkers and increased the usage of cutters. He can throw all the pitches he wants, but there seems to be a consistent reaction once he gets into homerun trouble.

It’s a short season so these are small samples, but lets look to where Ryu gave up five runs on long balls against the Nationals and Yankees, mostly thanks to some non-competitive inside or high pitches.

Once that had happened, he limited his options all by himself be fearing long balls.

If he can’t throw the high or inside pitch, then he becomes an ordinary LHP who relies on the low-outside change-up. The Rays could capitalize on this possibility by stacking the lineup with their best hitters inside the zone.

Arozarena, for instance, is good at hitting that inside or high pitches with quick and short swing. And Renfroe and Adames can punish LHP’s mistake with a good power. If they do this at the early part of the game, the game can be unexpectedly easy.

But will this happen easily? Can the Rays press him with power like the Yankees?

I don’t think this happy scenario is likely to happen easily. And I don’t think hitters should be too obsessed with long balls. If they’re fooled by Ryu’s pitching strategy, chances are high that you’ll be like the Yankees, who had been shut out for seven innings in the next game after hitting a lot of long balls.

I believe that is not a strategy with such a high probability of winning for the Rays.

Plan B: Don’t worry about Ryu

After the above tweet, the Rays won two more games without a home run.

Toronto is one of the worst defensive teams in baseball (29th-ranked at DRS, 18th-ranked at UZR), and they don’t have enough bullpen pitchers to deal with Rays quality LHBs

It may be wiser to play your best hitters regardsless, be patient, and focus on the contact. If the Rays can put the ball in-play, and put pressure on the defense with aggressive base running, then Ryu will be pulled off in the fifth or sixth innings, and TB can let the LHBs face TOR’s RHPs.

I think this is a better plan. There may be some strikeouts, but the same is true even if you rely on home runs. It should better make use of the advantages of the Rays.

Concluding Thoughts

One more thing to note is that Ryu is a pitcher who is excellent at preventing steals.

After he signed with the Dodgers and reviewed MLB’s balk regulations, he said. “I will not allow any stolen bases under this rule. Because the MLB’s balk regulation for a LHP is far more generous than KBO’s one.”

Since then, Ryu has allowed 7 (!) steals for his career (138 games). That’s approximately only 1 steal in 20 games is allowed. That’s bad news for the Rays who had been very aggressive on the base path lately.

However, while it is not necessary to steal, it can be enough to signal that they can steal.

In fact, it’s a Rays’ strategy already shown in two games against Ryu. He pitched only 4.1 innings and 5.0 innings, while allowing 3 and 1 runs in those games. Although the game was one win and one loss, Toronto was forced to use a lot of bullpen arms. Ryu is Toronto’s only reliable starter, and if he doesn’t throw many innings, the team will likely have a hard time.

I don’t know how Ryu will prepare for this, but just as the Rays may be hard pressed to threaten him with a long-ball, the Jays will be hard pressed to handle the small-ball approach of the Rays.