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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Hyun Jin Ryu

The veteran southpaw could provide some much needed rotation insurance and possibly even compete for the fifth starter role.

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

With pitchers and catchers reporting in just two weeks’ time, the Yankees’ window to bolster the roster before the team reconvenes for the 2024 season is closing. Although recent reports suggest that the team’s winter business is largely wrapped up but for some additions to the bullpen, New York should seriously consider boosting depth for a rotation that has a few question marks heading into the season. To that end, the front office might consider Hyun Jin Ryu as it appears he is finally back to a normal offseason routine.

2023 Statistics: 27 games (25 starts), 136.2 IP, 3.95 ERA (113 ERA+), 3.58 FIP, 3.79 xFIP, 20.7 percent K%, 9.0 percent BB%, 2.7 fWAR

2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 32 starts, 189 IP, 4.11 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 19.3 percent K%, 7.7 percent BB%, 2.6 fWAR

Previous Contract: Signed four-year, $80 million contract with Blue Jays on December 27, 2019.

Ryu returned to the mound 13 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery to make 11 starts for the Blue Jays, pitching to a 3.46 ERA across 52 innings. His velocity was noticeably down, every pitch operating roughly two mph below his career average, but he still maintained effectiveness across the majority of his starts. He held the opposition to two or fewer earned runs in eight of his 11 starts, pitching at least five innings in most.

There is some evidence to suggest that Ryu was the victim of some bad luck in the admittedly small sample size of his final two seasons in Toronto. There is a half-run drop off from his FIP to his xFIP over his last 17 starts totaling 79 innings, meaning more of his fly balls left the park than you would expect. What’s more, hitters slugged his changeup more than 60 points higher than expected, with the four-seamer performing even worse, yielding a slugging percent over 120 points higher than expected slugging. To that end, both ZiPS and FanGraphs Depth Charts project some positive regression in the home run department that should restore some value, though it’s worth noting that ZiPS expects him to pitch 50 fewer innings than does FGDC.

That being said, there are also some ref flags. Ryu lost roughly six points off his groundball rate from his best seasons in 2019 and 2020, the vast majority of those turning into fly balls. He also saw his walk rate jump to 6.3 percent in 2023 from 4.5 percent over the prior five seasons while the strikeout rate deteriorated from 22.6 percent to 17 percent.

I looked back at his best season in 2019 — when he finished second in the NL Cy Young race after leading baseball with a 2.32 ERA and 1.2 walks per nine — to see what he looks like when he’s at his best and to see if he was replicating any of those patterns after his August 2023 return from TJS. Ryu thrived at inducing soft contact, placing in the 90th percentile in barrel rate and hard-hit rate between 2019 and 2020.

He achieves this when he’s locating his four-seamer up-and-in to righties and fading his changeup off the plate armside. His command and sequencing of those two pitches allow them to tunnel effectively, giving him the sixth-highest chase rate among qualified pitchers between 2019 and 2020, with the offspeed placing as the third-best changeup by Statcast’s run value in 2019. He got into trouble in 2023 when throwing his fastball low in the zone and when his changeup landed in the zone rather than fading out of it.

Courtesy of FanGraphs

Of course, any team should be wary of what’s become an alarming laundry list of injuries to bedevil the southpaw since coming over from KBO in 2014. He underwent his first Tommy John surgery as a high schooler in 2004, missed all of 2015 to shoulder labrum surgery, made just one start in 2016 before undergoing elbow debridement surgery, and landed on the 60-day IL in 2018 with a groin injury before this latest TJ cost him most of 2022 and 2023. These injuries have turned a top-ten starter in baseball between 2019 and 2020 by ERA, fWAR, and walk rate into a more of a back-end, mid-four ERA starter likely looking for a short-term deal now that he’s firmly into the second half of his thirties.

While the Yankees do have five starters penciled into the rotation, the depth behind that group falls off precipitously. Luke Weaver, Cody Poteet, Will Warren, Luis Gil, and Clayton Beeter are candidates for next-man-up should any of the starting five go down and it would behoove the Yankees to bring in someone with a higher pedigree and established MLB success as a starter. Add in the uncertainty surrounding how Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes will rebound from disappointing years and Ryu starts looking like an attractive depth candidate.