This smelled of a huge gamble. Looked like a reach. You had to wondered if it wasn’t largely a publicity exercise, if the Dodgers had really spent a total of $61.7 million to sign Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Yet nearly a fourth of the way into the season, it’s time to give the Dodgers and their scouts great credit for the signing.
Ryu, scheduled to start Friday night in Atlanta, has been fairly phenomenal. He has gone directly from the Korean Baseball Organization to the major leagues with relative ease -- like it happens all the time, not like he’s the first.
In his first eight starts, Ryu is 4-2 with a 3.42 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. In 50 1/3 innings, he has struck out 51 and walked one.
Ryu, 26, has demonstrated a calm confidence and command on the mound that should have been difficult to foretell. He changes speed, works the plate, uses a variety of pitches and seems highly competitive -- a ll from a guy who hadn’t pitched at any level in the U.S. until this season.
“He knows how to pitch to win, which is so refreshing,” said catcher A.J. Ellis. “He’s not just out there throwing to throw. He dials it up when he has to. He adds and subtracts to all his pitches.
“He’s a sneaky, really good athlete. He has amazing feel. He can field his position, hold runners, handle the bat. He’s a guy who just knows how to win baseball games.”
With Ryu having spent the past seven years pitching in South Korea, how could anyone really know how his ability to dominate there would translate to the major leagues?
He had pitched in the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic, but coming directly to the majors was uncharted territory. Nevertheless, the Dodgers’ scouts recognized his ability.
General Manager Ned Colletti said the team’s main scout on Ryu was Byung Hwan An, who lives in South Korea. Rick Ragazzo, the team vice president of pro scouting, saw Ryu starting six years ago.
But the Dodgers made sure plenty of eyes were in on him. Colletti said Bob Engle, signed in the off-season as vice president of international scouting; farm director Logan White; Pacific Rim scouting director Pat Kelly and Pacific Rim assignment scout Jamey Storvick all saw Ryu pitch.
An had just married and started his honeymoon on the day the Dodgers reached agreement with Ryu and his agent, Scott Boras, on Dec. 12, 2012.
Now the pitcher just has to deliver, and, although he’s had a pair of rough outings, mostly he has -- with a demeanor that belies his major-league inexperience.
“I actually do feel like a rookie,” Ryu said through an interpreter, but Manager Don Mattingly calls him a craftsman. “He locates, changes speeds, takes a little off. When he’s sharp, it’s fun to watch,” Mattingly said.
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said Ryu’s change and fastball have been extremely consistent. On April 30, when his curve was also particularly sharp, he struck out 12 Colorado Rockies in six innings.
“He’s always poised, and obviously learning the league, but you still see him shake [off the catcher] at certain times,” Honeycutt said. “Especially when he’s been through the lineup a couple of times.
“I think he’s very intelligent and just has pitchability. There’s probably a speed he’s real comfortable with, and when things get going, he also turns it up a notch. I wouldn’t call him crafty. He just pitches within himself. He doesn’t try to do more.”
Ellis said that after the Dodgers signed Ryu, he spent time studying video of the acquisition pitching in South Korea.
“I watched and saw a guy who dominated,” Ellis said. “You still have question if it’s going to translate, Korean hitters versus major-league hitters. So you didn’t know. One thing I keep reminding myself is, this guy was the best player in his entire country.
“He knows how to pitch on a big stage and under pressure and with expectations. He’s pitched in WBCs, he’s pitched in the Olympics, so there’s no stage that’s going to be too big for him.”
Right now, it looks like a gamble that will pay off.