KBO-bound Ryu Hyun-jin wraps up MLB career highlighted by All-Star Game start, injuries

By reuniting with his former Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club the Hanwha Eagles on Thursday with an eight-year contract, South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin, 36, appears to have wrapped up his Major League Baseball (MLB) career after 10 seasons. It was a run marked by some dizzying highs, featuring an All-Star Game starting nod and Cy Young Award candidacy, and frustrating lows, marked by career-threatening injuries. If this indeed is the end for Ryu in the majors, he will be remembered as one of the best South Korean players to have suited up in MLB. Ryu had his first stint with the Eagles from 2006 to 2012, and immediately became the league's top pitcher by grabbing both the MVP and the Rookie of the Year awards in his first season. As a 19-year-old, Ryu won the pitching Triple Crown that year as the league leader with 18 wins, 2.23 ERA and 204 strikeouts. He went on to dominate the KBO for the next six seasons and was posted for MLB teams when he first became eligible following the 2012 season. Th e procedure was different at the time. MLB teams had to put in a bid in a silent auction for the exclusive negotiating rights with a posted player, and then had 30 days in which to sign that player to a deal. The Los Angeles Dodgers won the bid with a little over US$25.7 million and then signed him to a six-year, $36 million contract. Ryu became the first South Korean player to jump from the KBO to MLB via posting. And his early success with the Dodgers opened up new possibilities for South Korean stars in later years, as more and more MLB clubs started taking interest in the KBO. Prior to Ryu, all South Korean players in MLB had signed with their clubs out of Korean high school or while still in college, before playing any pro ball in their native countries. Ryu showed that players could take a different route -- that they could spend a few years playing professionally at home first before taking their talents to the big leagues and still succeed. Ryu's contract with the Dodgers remained the largest deal signed by a Korean player in posting for 11 years, until Lee Jung-hoo, the 2022 KBO MVP, agreed to a six-year, $113 million contract with the San Francisco Giants in December 2023. Ryu went 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA in his first season as a Dodger and finished fourth in the National League (NL) Rookie of the Year voting. He threw 192 innings that year, and it ended up being Ryu's highest total for a single season in the majors, as assorted injuries hampered his career. On the injury front, Ryu hit the rock bottom in 2015. He missed the entire season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Few pitchers have made it back from a shoulder surgery, but Ryu returned to action in July 2016 -- only to be shut down for the rest of that year with left elbow tendonitis. After a mediocre 2017 season, during which he was briefly sent to the bullpen and was held out of the Dodgers' postseason run, Ryu bounced back in 2018. He pitched to a 1.97 ERA and a 7-3 record in 15 starts. He had 89 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings, the first t ime he averaged more than a strikeout per inning. But injuries were an issue once again, as Ryu was sidelined for about three months with left groin strain. He did, however, make his first World Series start that fall against the Boston Red Sox, taking the loss after allowing four runs in 4 2/3 innings. Ryu became a free agent for the first time after 2018 but accepted the Dodgers' one-year qualifying offer worth $17.9 million rather than testing the open market. It was a bet Ryu made on himself that he could have a strong 2019 season and increase his value heading into free agency the following winter. And Ryu did exactly that, as he authored the best season of his career in 2019, and also the best season by any South Korean pitcher in MLB history. Ryu led the majors with a 2.32 ERA. His ERA stayed below 2.00 through mid-August before a late summer swoon, but he still hung on to become the first South Korean pitcher to lead MLB in that category. Ryu also started for the NL at the All-Star Game, the first South Korean to do so. After the season, Ryu finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting, the highest placement by a Korean pitcher in the annual voting for the top pitcher. Ryu parlayed that performance into a four-year, $80 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. It was the largest contract for a free agent pitcher in club history at the time. Ryu finished third in the American League Cy Young voting in his first season as a Blue Jay, after going 5-2 with a 2.69 ERA in 12 starts in a pandemic-shortened, 60-game season. For the first time in four years, the Blue Jays also made the postseason. They have gone on to play October baseball in two of the next three seasons, too. Ryu, however, missed those two postseason trips. He was still recovering from his elbow surgery in late 2022. He was back by the summer of 2023 but did not make the postseason roster, due to the Blue Jays' rotation depth. Ryu was the first major free agent signing by the Blue Jays that swung open the current competitive windo w. He was the first of several veterans that the Blue Jays acquired in recent years to augment their talented young core. In 10 major league seasons, Ryu had a 78-48 record with a 3.27 ERA in 186 games. He had 934 strikeouts against 236 walks in 1,055 1/3 innings. Source: Yonhap News Agency