LOS ANGELES – At about the pace Hyun-Jin Ryu, the 26-year-old South Korean left-hander, is learning of life in America and its major leagues, the Los Angeles Dodgers are learning of him.
A couple months in, they've found Ryu to be bright, amusing and quite sure of himself, his confidence perhaps befitting such a pitcher so decorated in Korea.
And Ryu is finding his way. He allowed a run in 6 1/3 innings against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night, just a run in spite of the 10 singles with which the Giants peppered him. He pitched to contact, stubbornly and admirably, and over the course of 80 pitches wisely marginalized his unruly curveball. Instead, he leaned on what pitching coach Rick Honeycutt called, "a plus-plus changeup."
All things considered, the Dodgers liked what they saw of Ryu, in whom they've invested $36 million over six seasons. He pitched himself into their rotation, held up well against the Giants, and on Sunday will start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
On Friday afternoon, Ryu sat on a couch in the Dodgers' clubhouse, generally avoided eye contact, and said through his translator, "I'm getting used to life here. Everything's going pretty well."
Not much had happened since his first start, one that admittedly he entered with jangling nerves. In fact, Ryu's week has pretty much consisted of waiting for his second start.
See, he doesn't throw between starts. Never has. Not in Korea. Not now. When he reported to the Dodgers for spring training, according to the club, he hadn't thrown all winter.
At a time when the pitcher's arm is the most scrutinized piece of anatomy in sports, when arm maintenance methodologies are debated, when pitch counts – in and out of games – are tabulated and sweated over, Ryu stands on the side of extreme caution. Or extreme preservation.
Ryu did endure Tommy John surgery and recovery while in high school. But, in the course of a conversation about his routine – or, in this case, non-routine – Ryu did not mention that as grounds for his personal schedule. Or non-schedule.
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"It started a few years ago," he said. "In Korea, it's common you throw over 100 pitches in every start. It takes five days to fully recuperate. My No. 1 priority is to be ready to throw another 100 pitches."
In the U.S., the vast majority of starting pitchers throws a fairly rigorous bullpen session between starts. It is there where pitchers maintain arm strength and feel, and troubleshoot issues from the previous start. Ryu might throw the ball around in the outfield with a teammate. Or he might not.
"In Korea, it was never an issue," he said. "Here, we actually did have a discussion with the coaching staff. I would change that if necessary."
The Dodgers knew of Ryu's between-starts preference when they signed him, talked it through with Ryu during spring training, and were – and are – agreeable. For one, it worked, not only in Korea, but in spring training, where Ryu made early adjustments in games and improved as the season approached. For another, Ryu believes in it. At a time of personal and professional change, the fewer moving parts the better. The ball has changed, the opposing lineups have changed, the scouting reports have changed. The schedule has not.
So, they'll respect and support Ryu's wishes for as long as it works. Or doesn't.
"We're comfortable with it to the extent that's what he does and that's what's made him successful," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "It would be unfair to ask him to adjust until we see it doesn't work.
"Like anybody in any walk of life that's successful, they know themselves better than anybody."
The Dodgers could require Ryu to throw a 45-pitch side session, Colletti said, and perhaps risk Ryu's comfort, health and effectiveness. It didn't seem to him the wisest of tacks.
"Now suddenly we've done something to change what's made him good," he said. "It's a style and preparation he's accustomed to."
If nothing else, it's interesting. Honeycutt said that, outside a few with aching or worn-down bodies, he'd not known of a pitcher whose philosophy was to go – literally – from start to start. A lot of coaching takes place in those bullpen sessions. A lot of refining. A lot of conversation.
"The point is, he's been successful doing it his way for quite a while, so we'll see," Honeycutt said. "We're letting him do it his way."
Otherwise, he said, "It would be like me taking Zack Greinke and suggesting stuff totally against what he's done because that's my preference."
So, they'll watch and see. Ryu said that if a problem develops, he'll adjust. He'll throw between starts. Maybe even a little more before starts. See, he also throws about 25 pitches about 20 minutes before he takes the mound, also a comparatively light load. But, that's his thing. That's what got him here.
Luis Cruz, who became friendly with Ryu during spring training, cited Ryu's extreme confidence. So did A.J. Ellis, who caught Ryu's start against the Giants.
"The guy just oozes confidence," Ellis said.
The rest, they'll figure out. It's a good place to start.
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