PHOENIX — Officially, Hyun-Jin Ryu doesn’t weigh any less than he did last year. The Dodgers still list his weight as 255 pounds.
But his face doesn’t look nearly as self-indulgent. His torso appears leaner.
“I weigh significantly less than I did this time last year,” Ryu said through interpreter Martin Kim.
Ryu declined to specify how much less — “Only I know,” he said with a smile — but the South Korean left-hander certainly looked lighter on his feet Sunday in the first workout of the spring for the Dodgers pitchers and catchers.
On a 20-minute run around the team’s complex, Ryu kept pace with four other pitchers in his group, including Clayton Kershaw, who might be the best-conditioned pitcher on the team.
In his first camp with the Dodgers last year, Ryu was embarrassed on a similar run. In front of two dozen South Korean journalists chronicling his every step, Ryu gasped for air and trailed most of the other pitchers by the length of a football field. He gradually worked his way into shape over the spring, but the incident made him aware more was expected of him.
Ryu was also inspired by watching how Kershaw and Zack Greinke prepared themselves physically.
“Working hard is very contagious,” he said. “Having teammates that work hard pushes me.”
So, this year, Ryu came to the United States from South Korea nearly a month before the start of camp. While Dodger Stadium was preparing to hold an NHL game between the Kings and Ducks, Ryu could been seen running up and down the stadium steps.
“Looks to me like he wants to be even better,” General Manager Ned Colletti said. “That’s a good sign.”
Especially considering how well Ryu pitched last season as a 26-year-old rookie. The first player to move directly from the Korean league to the majors, Ryu was 14-8 with a 3.00 earned-run average. He established himself as the Dodgers’ No. 3 pitcher behind Kershaw and Greinke, and pitched seven scoreless innings against the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
Regardless of how Ryu looked, catcher A.J. Ellis always considered him an elite athlete.
Ellis pointed out how pitchers such as Ryu and Greinke differed from someone like, say, Kershaw.
“Clayton’s an amazing athlete, but he’s a max-effort pitcher, where he’s giving his full effort on every single pitch,” Ellis said. “Hyun-Jin and Zack are kind of playing a cat-and-mouse game when they pitch. They change speeds, take something off, add on. Ryu will throw a softer changeup at 77, then come back with a harder change at 83-84.”
Ellis contends that superior athleticism is required to make such adjustments. Ellis is hopeful Ryu’s improved conditioning might allow him to take even more advantage of his natural gifts.
For his part, Ryu is aiming for another injury-free season.
Ryu thinks he will benefit from his increased comfort in the clubhouse.
“It’s great to already have familiar faces and to already have friends,” he said. “It’s the first day of camp, but it doesn’t feel like the first day of camp. Last year, I didn’t know anyone and was a lot more uncomfortable.”