With the Pittsburgh Pirates needing another starting pitcher, they could consider going after Hyun Jin Ryu, who remains available on the free agent market
The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have to find another starting pitcher somewhere. My preferred option would be to pursue someone in the trade market. But if the Pirates must turn to the free agent market, left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu is an underrated veteran to pursue. Although he might be an older free agent, the Pirates could probably sign him for a bargain despite his similar numbers to players who signed for much more.
Last year, Ryu owned a 3.46 ERA, 4.91 FIP, and 1.29 WHIP, albeit through 52 innings. His return from Tommy John surgery was successful as he was very solid for the Blue Jays in August and September. He had a quality 6.3% walk rate, although this is the highest walk rate he has posted since 2017. Another negative is that his 17% strikeout rate was the worst of his career. His 1.56 HR/9 also isn’t too confidence-inspiring, but there are some positive factors about his overall season.
Despite Ryu’s poor home run rate, he was above average in barrel rate at 7.6%. He was in the 75th percentile of exit velocity and had a 46.2% ground ball rate, which clocked in the 71st percentile of pitchers last season. Ryu had a 16.4% HR/FB ratio, nearly 4% higher than his career average and over 3% more than he had from 2018 through 2022, which consisted of 528 innings. Given his quality ground ball rate and exit velocity, I think there’s a good chance this improves in 2024 if he keeps up similar numbers. Plus, moving from Rogers Centre to PNC Park could help.
But aside from better home run luck, what could make Ryu an underrated bargain to go after? Ryu’s underlying numbers aren’t that much different from some of the other starting pitchers who have signed for over $12 million a year. Take Jack Flaherty, who signed with the Detroit Tigers for one year at $14 million. Flaherty had a 4.36 xFIP, 4.53 SIERA, and 99 DRA-. Those aren’t too dissimilar to Ryu’s 4.41 xFIP, 4.69 SIERA, and 113 DRA-. Flaherty and Ryu also had almost identical exit velocities and barrel rates, as Flaherty had an 87.9 MPH exit velo and 7.3% barrel rate.
Michael Wacha was a pitcher whom I wanted the Pirates to pursue heavily this winter. He ended up signing with the Kansas City Royals for two years for $32 million ($16 million a season). But again, look at some of his ERA estimators and batted ball numbers. Wacha had a 4.47 xFIP, 4.43 SIERA , and 103 DRA-. Wacha had an 88.1 MPH exit velocity and a 7.3% barrel rate.
Lucas Giolito signed for two years at $38.5 million. He had a 4.45 xFIP, 4.21 SIERA, and 114 DRA-. He was significantly worse than Ryu at limiting hard contact with an 89.2 MPH exit velocity and 11% barrel rate.
If you want to take an extreme step, Eduardo Rodriguez was considered one of the best pitchers on the free agent market. He in turn had a 4.06 xFIP, 4.26 SIERA, and 104 DRA-. Not only was he considered one of the best SPs this off-season, but he signed a four-year deal worth $80 million. His exit velo is the worst among the other pitchers at 88.6 MPH but still had a 7.6% barrel rate, the same as Ryu.
You can call it narrative ball, but the stats I used, xFIP, SIERA, DRA-, are designed to be predictive measurements. Exit velocity, ground ball rate, and barrel rate can change year to year, but if a pitcher can limit hard contact and induce ground balls at an above-average rate, they’ll probably be good at preventing home runs and hits if they have a decent defense behind them. I’m not saying that if the Pirates signed Ryu, you should expect him to revert to his Cy Young finalist days, but he could continue to be a solid pitcher, maybe with an ERA+ around 110-115, for a low price.