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Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Is Ryu due for a sophomore slump?

By Mark Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- Hyun-Jin Ryu has been pitching in the United States for less than a year, but he’s perfectly aware of how difficult it is to repeat success in the major leagues.

The Dodgers’ left-hander said he flew to California from his native South Korea two weeks before spring training. He wanted to get in better shape to avoid a second-year regression.

“I realized last year that I was underprepared,” Ryu said.

It didn’t really show. Ryu was, he admits, a bit overweight when camp started last February and couldn’t finish the pitchers’ first conditioning run. But he had enough time to prepare for Opening Day and started off his season well, overcame a midseason plateau and finished strong. He had a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings, a performance that would have merited more Rookie of the Year attention if not for the exploits of Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig.

This year, he looks slimmer going into camp, which opens Saturday for pitchers, catchers and injured players, and said he has been watching what he eats and working out steadily.

“My goal is to pitch the entire season without any injuries,” he said.

It’s difficult to predict what pitchers will do coming off strong rookie seasons. For every Dwight Gooden, who takes a major step forward, there is a Rick Sutcliffe, who regresses dramatically.

It’s probably a bit more instructive to compare Ryu to other pitchers who came straight from foreign professional leagues, because -- unlike U.S. players -- they have no minor-league history with any of the hitters they’re facing. They often have been lightly scouted. It’s fair to say they own a sizeable advantage on the hitters, one which fades over time.

But again, we find mixed signals. Daisuke Matsuzaka had his best year -- by far -- in his second season, finishing with a 2.90 ERA and finishing fourth in the 2008 Cy Young balloting. Last year, Yu Darvish made a big leap in his sophomore season, leading the league in strikeouts and finishing second to Max Scherzer in the Cy Young race. On the other hand, Hideo Nomo began to regress in his second season and was never as good as in his rookie season.

Ryu’s numbers -- a .252 batting average on balls in play and 1.20 WHIP -- suggest he could be in for a bit of a come-down in year two, as his luck was better than the average pitcher’s. On the other hand, he’s not a power pitcher and he’s not overly reliant on strikeouts. He tends to be pitch-efficient, which bodes well for his chances of giving the Dodgers consistent innings.

He also should have one of the better lineups in baseball providing him run support and, as the No. 3 starter, he shouldn’t feel overwhelming pressure. Unlike Matsuzaka, who led the league in walks in his best season, he throws strikes.

So, will he endure a sophomore slump? Probably, but it seems highly endurable. And the fact he’s preparing to fight is another positive sign.