As Hyun Jin Ryu returns to KBO, Blue Jays remember lasting impact he had on club

DUNEDIN, Fla. — During their years together on the Blue Jays, Alek Manoah and Hyun Jin Ryu formed an especially close bond which spanned from the clubhouse to hotel room hangs to nights out eating at Korean barbecue joints.

“For me, being a younger guy coming up in the league and him being a veteran, he was never (like), ‘You need to do this, you need to do that,’” Manoah said. “He did a good job of taking me under his wing and showing me how it was done instead of telling me.”

The relationship between Ryu and Manoah was so tight that they even had a signature way of greeting each other in the clubhouse.

“Manoahhhhh,” Ryu would yell when the right-hander walked into the clubhouse.

“And then I would yell back at him like, ‘Ryuuuuu,’” Manoah said on Thursday in the Blue Jays clubhouse at their player development complex. “Those were good times.”

It’s times like those that Manoah will miss the most with news that Ryu is officially returning to where it all began for him. After 10 seasons pitching in Major League Baseball, first with the Los Angeles Dodgers and then with the Blue Jays, Ryu signed a record eight-year, 17-billion won (US$12.8 million) contract to return to his native South Korea and pitch for the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization. The contract, which was officially announced on Thursday, will bring the 36-year-old left-hander’s career full circle after he first began as a teenage pitching phenom for the Eagles.

But around Toronto, Ryu is remembered for the impact he had on the organization. When Ryu signed his four-year, $80-million contract with Toronto ahead of the 2020 season, it was a delineation point for the organization, a move that signalled the club that featured young stars Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Bo Bichette was transitioning from a rebuilding team to a contending one.

Ryu’s four years in Toronto had its ups and downs. Ryu’s first season — and arguably best — was truncated by the pandemic-shortened season, but he still was the pitcher of record on Sept. 24, 2020, when the Blue Jays beat the New York Yankees to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2016. Injuries and ultimately Tommy John surgery in 2022 diminished the on-field impact Ryu could have with the club during the back half of his contract. But he at least was able to return and pitch for the Blue Jays effectively down the stretch in 2023, authoring a happy ending to his Toronto tenure.

And, through conversations with those who played with Ryu, it’s abundantly clear he left a lasting impression.

“His really positive energy, fun spirit was always really cool in the clubhouse,” Manoah said.

“He’s a man of few words, but when he does say something, I think it always carried a lot of weight,” said Justin Turner, who played with Ryu on the Dodgers. “That’s what I always loved about him.”

After seven years of pitching in the KBO to begin his career, Ryu made a rather seamless transition to the major leagues. He was a two-time Cy Young finalist — once each for the Dodgers and Blue Jays — the MLB ERA leader in 2019 and an All-Star that year, as well.

A crafty lefty, what Ryu lacked in velocity he made up for in his ability to change speeds and locate his pitches with surgical precision. With a 3.27 ERA over 185 career MLB starts, he’ll go down as one of the greatest Korean pitchers to play in the major leagues.

“There’s not many guys that can throttle velo the way that he does, take velo off pitches, add velo to pitches, it’s very hard to do for a lot of guys,” Chris Bassitt, who pitched in the rotation with Ryu last season, said. “He was able to basically throw a pitch at three different speeds — that’s really, really hard to do. He knows how to pitch, he’s been doing it a long time.”

Closer Jordan Romano was early into his career when Toronto signed Ryu to what was then the largest free-agent contract for a pitcher. He remembered thinking his addition meant “the time starts now.”

Indeed, Ryu’s signing ushered in a new era for the Blue Jays, who were finally shopping in the luxury aisle of free agency. (As an aside, Ryu’s signing also helped mend a fractured relationship between the organization and super-agent Scott Boras, who attended Ryu’s introductory press conference.) In the ensuing years, the Blue Jays continued to bring in top free agents including George Springer, Marcus Semien, Kevin Gausman and Bassitt. A lot of factors go into why a free agent chooses a team — the biggest of which is money — but Springer said seeing the Blue Jays bring in someone like Ryu before him was notable.

“Anytime you see a guy like that go anywhere, you know that that organization is invested and wants to surround the guys who they have in that locker room with guys like him,” Springer said. “He’s such an unbelievable human being. It was an honour to get to know him, to play with him. Obviously, I’m sad he’s gone, but to have a guy like that here, he really led the way and it was an honour to play with him.”

Ryu wasn’t the loudest voice in the room, but he had a natural way of bringing people together. He was always willing to invite his teammates — from rookies to vets — out to dinner or invite everyone back to his hotel room for a full spread.

“He’s such a veteran guy and done a lot in the game and he always made me, as like a first-year guy, feel extremely welcome,” Romano said. “Inviting me to the dinners, the team events that he would put on. Usually, it could be for like exclusive guys that had been there a while, but he invited all us young guys, too, and made us feel really welcome and comfortable with the team.”

Ryu also had a wicked sense of humour. That’s what manager John Schneider will miss most about the left-hander.

“I think of him cruising around the clubhouse with his humongous calves and a Starbucks, just kind of running his day like that. He’s quietly really, really funny,” Schneider said.

While Ryu liked to joke around, when it came to pitching he took his job ultra-seriously. Teammates describe his routine as professional and particular.

“The scouting of opposing players, like the homework that he did between every start, was incredible,” Romano said. “That’s probably the most extensive planning that I’ve ever seen. I definitely tried to take a little bit of that into my game.”

Danny Jansen caught 215 1/3 of Ryu’s innings, the second-most of any catcher behind former Dodger A.J. Ellis, and being behind the plate for a Ryu start was an educational experience, Jansen said.

“One of those masters of changing up speeds and keeping guys off-balance,” Jansen added. “So catching him, especially earlier in my career, like 2020, being with him and seeing that guy and how he works and how he goes about his business, how he switches stuff up, how he changes eye levels and has all sorts of different pitches, (it) definitely opened up my mind more. (I) definitely don’t have it all figured out, but it’s helped me.”

Ryu helped other pitchers, too Unable to blow batters away with velocity, Ryu was a cerebral pitcher on the mound with a unique perspective on how to sequence his pitches to out-wit a batter. When he could, he passed on that knowledge to others.

“He was really good with mixing in his pitches and being able to explain to you why he’s mixing in certain pitches,” Manoah said. “Why (he was) throwing a curveball here, throwing a changeup here. It was always really cool for him to even be able to watch my bullpens and give me tips.”

After his remarkable recovery from Tommy John surgery, Ryu had a 3.46 ERA in 11 starts for the Blue Jays last August and September. With so many MLB teams shopping for starting pitching this offseason, it seemed like there would be a chance Ryu would find another opportunity to pitch in the majors. However, those close to Ryu said he also talked about his hope to one day pitch again in the KBO.

“He’s very, very big on respect and all those things and that’s where his career started, so he was always big on going back and playing there, representing them again. They’re the ones who gave him the opportunity to come over here and play,” Manoah said. “I’ve always kind of known that he was going to end up doing that and I feel like it’ll be great for him. He’ll be able to go over there and be a mentor to all the players over there, which is something he’s really good at doing. All the guys over there will be lucky to have him.”

And while his former teammates are sad to see Ryu go, they’re pleased he is getting to craft the final chapter he always wanted.

“Not a lot of us get to dictate how it ends,” Turner said. “I’m really happy for him that he’s getting the chance to do that.”

(File photo of Ryu: Richard Lautens / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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