Hyun Jin Ryu’s 2022 season is, in all likelihood, over. His 2023 season is in question, too.
On Tuesday, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said Ryu will undergo surgery to repair chronic changes to his left ulnar collateral ligament. That procedure could be a full revision of the UCL — commonly known as Tommy John surgery — or it could be a partial repair of the ligament. Which procedure he receives will be determined once the surgery is underway, but either is expected to end his season.
Since the 35-year-old left-hander landed on the injured list June 2 — for the second time this year — with forearm inflammation, the Blue Jays and Ryu have been consulting with their medical team and outside doctors to find a path to recovery. After exploring conservative routes, Ryu and the team decided to go ahead with the surgery, which will be performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache.
“We were hopeful that there was the potential of a conservative route and weighed the pros and cons of that and ultimately decided that it was best to move forward with the procedure,” Atkins said.
What does this mean for Ryu and the Blue Jays now and long term? Let’s examine the central questions.
Hyun Jin Ryu is done for the season most likely, per #BlueJays GM Ross Atkins. Whether he gets full Tommy John or a partial repair is still to be determined but earliest he’ll be back is next season
— Kaitlyn McGrath (@kaitlyncmcgrath) June 14, 2022
What do we know about the injury, the surgery and the recovery time?
Atkins described the injury as “chronic changes” to the ligament. That means there wasn’t an acute injury — no one pitch did this — but rather, over the years, the ligament has stretched from constant use. That’s why Ryu felt tightness in his elbow amid his starts this year.
“Over time, that stretching and pulling makes the tightness occur and loss of dexterity or feel to execute his pitches or really finish them,” Atkins said.
The Blue Jays explored conservative options, including a platelet-rich plasma injection or rest and rehab. But, the best path forward was surgical. If Ryu does get Tommy John surgery, it would be his second. He also underwent the procedure in high school.
“He, I think, got to the point where he said, I just want to compete as quick as humanly possible and felt like this was the best thing to do that and focused on doing that for us,” Atkins said.
The typical recovery timeline from Tommy John is about 12 to 15 months, though Ryu is 35 years old, so bouncing back at a mature age is a tougher ask. There’s a scenario where Ryu doesn’t pitch again for the Blue Jays, considering his contract is up after 2023.
If Ryu received the partial repair, his timeline would be shorter, but it’s unclear by how much less.
“Is it a third shorter? Is it a quarter shorter? It’s based on the patient, based on the rehab, the actual repair and how that process goes,” Atkins said.
The expectation is Ryu will be sidelined for the remainder of 2022. A return at some point next season would be a “great outcome,” Atkins said.
As for how Ryu is dealing with the news, the GM said he’s “extremely disappointed.”
“He’s professional and he’s a very tough individual and has perspective, but he’s extremely disappointed that he won’t be part of this in the near term,” Atkins said.
How does Ryu’s injury affect the Blue Jays’ rotation this season and long term?
In the immediate future, they’ll roll with Ross Stripling in their rotation as they’ve done for more than half of this season. So far, Stripling’s been filling in nicely with a 2.81 ERA in seven starts. In his two starts since Ryu went back on the IL, Stripling has allowed just two hits and no earned runs in 11 innings.
“I always say, when you lose somebody like that, somebody has to step up so that we can continue to have the season that we’re having, and Stripling’s doing that, which is great,” manager Charlie Montoyo said.
If Stripling falters or another injury occurred, there are internal options, including right-hander Nate Pearson, who pitched Tuesday with Triple-A Buffalo as he continues to build up after his bout with mononucleosis in spring. Pearson allowed one run on two hits with four strikeouts in two innings for the Bisons. The Blue Jays have been open to using Pearson in a bulk role at some point this year, so while he may not carry the workload of a traditional starter, he could be a creative option. Atkins added he was “really encouraged” by Pearson’s recent two-inning, scoreless outing with Buffalo.
Other depth starter options include Thomas Hatch and Casey Lawrence, who are both in Buffalo. Max Castillo is only 23 years old and has made just four outings in Triple A this year, but he has a 0.77 ERA, so he could pitch his way into an opportunity.
Looking to next year, the Blue Jays will need to explore adding a starter for next season via free agency or see if any of their young starting options — including Pearson — can make the jump to the majors.
What does this mean for Stripling?
In baseball, injuries create opportunities and this is Stripling’s chance to pitch in the rotation long term. If we consider his personal interests, the timing is good. He’s a free agent after this season and sustained success could lead to a significant payday, either from the Blue Jays or another club.
Stripling has had success this season by mixing all five of his pitches. His command has been sharp — he has a 1.6 percent walk rate as a starter — and he’s been attacking hitters with his arsenal.
“If you can execute four pitches aggressively over the strike zone, and it doesn’t really matter the count, you probably are going to have success. There aren’t many people that can do that,” Atkins said.
Will the Blue Jays explore acquiring a starter at the trade deadline?
Asked about this Tuesday, Atkins said, “we have to consider deadline opportunities and just trade acquisitions that could bolster our depth there.”
So, yes, the Blue Jays will look into acquiring a starter before the Aug. 2 deadline. The good news is they already have co-aces in Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman, while José Berríos appears to be rounding into form. Ryu was a back-end starter, so they would most likely be looking for a depth option rather than a high-end starter.
What has Ryu’s impact been with the Blue Jays?
Ryu’s been a leader since he joined the club in 2020. He’s beloved by his teammates and is a mentor to his rotation-mates, including Manoah, whom he took under his wing last year.
“Ryu is extremely competitive. And I think everyone sees that, learns from it, enjoys watching it, embracing it,” Atkins said.
Added Montoyo: “He’s such a good guy, everybody loves him. And he’s always smiling and having fun with everybody and I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. Even if he had a tough outing or something, he was always the same guy. You got to appreciate that about Ryu. Really good teammate.”
How does the four-year, $80 million contract look in retrospect?
The Blue Jays signed Ryu when he was entering his age-33 season, so there was a possibility the back-half of the contract wouldn’t look as good as the first. That is indeed the case.
During the shortened 2020 season, Ryu was the staff ace, leading the club to a playoff appearance. He finished with a 2.69 ERA in 12 starts and was a Cy Young Award finalist. His next season had its ups and downs but he still made 31 starts and pitched at about a league-average level.
Ryu hasn’t been pitching at 100 percent this year, but Montoyo still credited his efforts. “When he took the mound, he gave us a chance,” the manager said. “Even his last outing (when) he was throwing 87, 86 (mph) and found a way to go four innings, that tells you a lot about what kind of guy he is and what kind of pitcher he is.”
Overall, his results could be described as mixed with the Blue Jays and surely the team could have hoped for better, especially if it ends on an injured note. But the front office would probably still sign that contract again because of what it symbolized. The club was coming off a 95-loss season in 2019 but had an exciting young core. Signing Ryu, then one of the top free agents, signalled the team’s renewed willingness to build a contender and spend big money to do so. Ryu’s signing paved the way for George Springer, Gausman and Berríos to sign.
“I actually see that pandemic year as him being integral to turning us around as a team and he was a stabilizer for us,” Atkins said. “You could absolutely lay your head on the pillow that he was going to go out and keep us not only in the game, but we would not have to score as much to potentially win. And that was a massive impact for us in 2020. And then was steady for us over the course of the last year and a half. So, impacted by injury now, but feel very good about that acquisition even though we are here today.”
(Photo: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)