PHOENIX — The Dodgers have been deliberately cautious in their handling of Hyun-jin Ryu this spring, but the left-hander may have accelerated his timetable by passing every test put in front of him.
"We're a better team if he's in our starting rotation,” manager Dave Roberts said.
That hasn’t really been in question, because when Ryu was healthy in 2013-2014 he was one of the most effective starting pitchers in the National League, posting a 3.17 ERA and 2.97 FIP iin 56 starts. But Ryu hasn’t been healthy the last two years, after surgery to repair a torn labrum and arthroscopic elbow surgery in 2016.
Going into this spring, the Dodgers weren’t sure what to expect, and at the very least were measured in their optimism over his reported good health over the winter.
But now, Ryu looks like his old self. He even compared this spring to 2013, his first year with the Dodgers, feeling like he is progressing at the same pace now than he was four years ago during spring.
"He's shown us a lot. If we look back a year ago from where he's come, he's done nothing but allow us to be very optimistic,” Roberts said. “For us, we're looking start to start and continue to have improvement and progress. Every day that has gone by, he has gotten better.”
The latest salvo from Ryu was four scoreless innings in Tuesday’s 5-4 Dodgers loss to the Brewers at Camelback Ranch. He retired 12 of 13 batters faced, allowing only a single. Ryu struck out two and induced four ground ball outs.
"For me, it was seeing the life in the zone, seeing the swings. Guys weren't getting good swings off him, and they were late. He was burying the change, and the breaking ball was striking,” Roberts said. “Everything he wanted to do today, he was able to do.”
The main question surrounding Ryu has been his velocity. He averaged 91.11 mph on his four-seam fastball in 2013 per Brooks Baseball, and 91.56 mph in 2014. Last year, in his one and only major league start, Ryu averaged 90.19 mph.
"If he's right around 87 to 90-91, touching 91, with his pitchability and his mix, he's fine right there,” Roberts said. “That's where he's been this spring.”
"I was never a guy who got outs with my velocity,” Ryu said. “If I can get up to around my 2013 season, I think I'll be efficient and effective.”
Ryu’s next start will be Monday, and he is expected to pitch five innings. Roberts said Ryu didn’t necessarily need to reach six innings to be considered for the opening day rotation. Ryu could conceivably be stretched to six innings in his final spring start, which could be Saturday of the Freeway Series against the Angels (nothing has been finalized here; I’m just speculating), though typically pitching coach Rick Honeycutt likes that final start of spring to be more of a shortened, tune-up start before the grind of the regular season begins.
The Dodgers will face an interesting choice in a week and a half. Brandon McCarthy has essentially claimed a rotation spot, potentially leaving Alex Wood as the odd man out should Ryu force the Dodgers’ hand. Wood does have options, but has also been used in relief, so the bullpen is a potential fall back, too.
Wood will start Thursday in a minor league game at Camelback Ranch.
Ryu, who earlier in camp set a goal to be in the rotation by opening day, stopped short of saying he has already done enough to earn a spot among the Dodgers starting five.
"I've only pitched three games to this point,” Ryu said. “I think I've done relatively well, so I'm on a good pace.”
Scott Kazmir pitched into the fifth inning in a minor league game against Indians Class-A batters on Tuesday —- the same game Corey Seager played in. Roberts said Kazmir was up to 87 mph in the game, and made improvements. The next start for Kazmir, after a bullpen session in a few days, will be in a Cactus League game. With McCarthy likely starting on the minor league side in his next time out, Sunday seems like a possible slot for Kazmir.
Trayce Thompson will likely play in back-to-back games soon for the first time this spring. He is 6-for-18 with a home run and three walks in six games so far this spring, ahead of schedule after returning from a broken back.
"The whole time, he's really wanted to push the envelope, but we sort of held him back to care for him and be prudent,” Roberts said. “He's accelerated this whole process."
The Dodgers are off on Wednesday, then return to action on Thursday with a 4:05 p.m. game against the Rangers on ESPN. Clayton Kershaw will start for the Dodgers, and is expected to throw six innings or roughly 90 pitches.
Roberts will be at his father Waymon’s funeral in San Diego on Thursday, but in his absence bench coach Bob Geren will manage the Dodgers against Texas.