Ryu Hyun-jin gives Eagles, KBO immediate boost in return from MLB

In his highly-anticipated return to the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), Hanwha Eagles pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin should give both his club and the top South Korean league an instant shot in the arm. The Eagles announced their reunion with Ryu on an eight-year contract worth 17 billion won (US$12.8 million) on Thursday. Ryu first pitched for the Eagles from 2006 to 2012, and made an immediate impact. He became the first player in league history to win both the regular season MVP and the Rookie of the Year award in the same season, after leading the KBO with 18 wins, 2.23 ERA and 204 strikeouts at 19-years-old. Ryu quickly became one of the KBO's best pitchers and also one of its most popular players. He also shined for the South Korean national team, most memorably helping the country win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was the starting pitcher against Cuba in the gold medal game. He also carved out a solid major league career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays. He put up a 78-48 record with a 3.27 ERA in 186 outings, all but one of them starts. It has been 12 years since Ryu last pitched in the KBO. He underwent shoulder and elbow operations while in the majors, and he is certainly not the same pitcher who overpowered KBO hitters more than a decade ago. But the crafty lefty should still be one of the league's top starters, thanks to the smarts and guile that helped him negate the effects of dropping fastball velocity in his latter seasons in the majors. The last time Ryu averaged over 90 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball was in 2019, his final year with the Dodgers. In the ensuing years, his average fastball velocity has sat in the 88-89 mph range. He has instead made a career out of his changeup, a pitch he has not been afraid to throw to left-handed batters against the norm. Big league hitters had trouble making hard contact on his changeup, and there's little reason to think it will be any different in the KBO. Ryu's presence could also be a bonanza for the Eag les away from the mound, too. He was the face of the franchise during his first stint with the team and should reprise that role as his career winds down. During his heyday in the majors, Ryu was consistently voted one of South Korea's most popular athletes in national polls. Fans of certain vintage will feel nostalgic watching Ryu pitch in Korea again, having grown from a massively-talented teenager to a savvy veteran, while younger baseball fans will get their first close look at the great pitcher playing in the same time zone. Ryu's iconic No. 99 jersey should quickly become the hottest item in the KBO. That will take some pressure off the shoulders of recent high draft picks who have been tasked with turning the fortunes around for the downtrodden franchise, including flamethrowing right-hander Moon Dong-ju, the 2023 Rookie of the Year, and third baseman Roh Si-hwan, the 2023 MVP runner-up. Ryu should also generate a ton of interest whenever he pitches away from the Eagles' home in Daejeon, and could he lp push the league's overall attendance number into the record-breaking territory. The KBO drew a little over 8.1 million fans last year, the third-highest total in league history. The record is 8.4 million from 2017, and Ryu's star power alone could put that mark in danger this year. The Eagles ranked ninth among 10 clubs last year in home attendance with just under 567,000 fans, a number that should jump this year even though they play at the league's smallest stadium, the 13,000-seat Hanwha Life Eagles Park in Daejeon, some 140 kilometers south of Seoul. Most of Ryu's contemporaries are no longer playing, but the few that have stuck around should set up for some fascinating battles against the left-hander. During Ryu's KBO days, his top pitching rival was Kim Kwang-hyun, a one-time major leaguer himself who is back with his old franchise, the SSG Landers. Kim pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals from 2020 to 2021, but Kim and Ryu never went toe-to-toe. They also never had a pitching duel in the KBO, o nly meeting in the All-Star Game in 2010 and in a preseason game in 2011. They were scheduled to start opposite each other on May 23, 2010, but that game was rained out. One of Kim's teammates, third baseman Choi Jeong, was a thorn on Ryu's side from 2006 to 2012, as he batted .362 with four home runs against the left-hander. As Ryu returns, one other former major league All-Star, Choo Shin-soo, is entering his final season. Choo announced in December last year that the 2024 campaign will be his last. Ryu and Choo met once in the majors in July 2013, when Ryu held Choo, then playing for the Cincinnati Reds, hitless in two at-bats and walked him once. The Eagles made the postseason only once without Ryu between 2013 and 2023, and finished in last place five times in that period. Whether Ryu alone can put the Eagles back in the postseason picture remains to be seen, but whatever he does, he will do so under the brightest of the spotlights. Source: Yonhap News Agency