Ryu handling rock-star status with aplomb
Though followed by throngs of Korean media, rookie lefty excelling
LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers got it right with Hyun-Jin Ryu.
The rookie left-hander from Incheon, South Korea, has been everything the Dodgers expected and more. Ryu has gone at least six innings in each of his seven starts, the only member of the rotation to do so. He averages 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest percentage among the club's starters.
Ryu has cemented himself as the No. 2 starter behind Clayton Kershaw. He's tied with Kershaw for the team lead with three wins, and ranks second with 43 2/3 innings and 48 strikeouts. With Zack Greinke sidelined by a broken left collarbone, Ryu has risen to the occasion and given the Dodgers what they need.
"It's been huge," manager Don Mattingly said. "He just kind of keeps stepping up and he's pretty cool to watch, actually. I like watching him pitch."
While Ryu's numbers are impressive, so is the way he carries himself on and off the field.
Wherever Ryu goes, cameras and throngs of Korean media follow. He's always in the spotlight. But that's nothing new for foreign stars when they come to the Major Leagues.
Dodgers veteran Jerry Hairston has seen it all before. He spent the 2009 season with the Yankees, where he saw Hideki Matsui constantly surrounded by Japanese media and fans. Four years later on a new team and on a different coast, Hairston is impressed by the way Ryu approaches his rock-star status.
"He definitely gets a lot of attention and he's handled it exceptionally well," Hairston said.
Ryu signed a six-year, $36 million contract in December. He's 26 years old and resides in downtown Los Angeles. There are plenty of distractions outside the ballpark, but that does not affect his performance on the field.
In the Dodgers' posh new clubhouse before his Major League debut on April 2 against the defending World Series champion Giants, Ryu told Kershaw he was nervous. It was a natural feeling, of course. Ryu was only following up Kershaw's four-hit shutout and homer on Opening Day.
Ryu passed his first test, though, going 6 1/3 innings and allowing just one earned run. He took the loss and allowed 10 hits, but Ryu struck out five against no walks and proved he was a legitimate big league starter.
Ryu won his next two outings, beating the Pirates at home and the D-backs on the road.
During a trip to the East Coast, his start against the Mets rivaled the attention he received at Dodger Stadium in his debut. Ryu responded with his best outing of the season, tossing seven innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts.
Five days later, Ryu's start against the Rockies was overshadowed by a special guest appearance from Psy, the Korean pop star know for "Gangnam Style." Psy appeared next to the Dodgers' dugout in bottom of the fourth inning to perform his signature dance. After the game, he met Ryu on the field and they exchanged gifts and posed for pictures.
"It was pretty neat seeing a worldwide global star," Ryu said. "I realized that he's still a far bigger star than I am. I'm just going to humble myself."
Ryu struck out 12 in that outing, the most for a Dodgers rookie since Hideo Nomo in 1995. Again, the distractions didn't diminish his performance.
"It seems like he kind of likes all that," Mattingly said. "He pitched really well in New York. There was a pretty big following in New York for him. It seems like he enjoys that. He's getting a lot of attention back at home, but he seems to like it. It's nice really because then he's just kind of jacked up."
How does Ryu do it?
"He does a great job channeling his focus on the mound," Hairston said. "He does his job and he's a pro. He's been doing it for a while. He's had really good success in Korea and he knows how to pitch."
While Ryu is a fierce competitor between the lines, teammates describe him as fun-loving and energetic off the field.
"He's always smiling and laughing," Hairston said. "We have a lot of fun and even though the language thing is not perfect, baseball is a universal language. He definitely fits right in."
Still, the rest of the Dodgers will never know what it's like to walk in Ryu's shoes. But even though he can be on an island at times, his teammates do their best to ease Ryu's transition.
"He's a Dodger now, he's our teammate," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "He's not somebody from Korea who happens to pitch for us. He's a Dodger. He's with us."
While the Dodgers have welcomed Ryu with open arms, the left-hander does not forget where he came from and the people that helped him reach the big leagues.
"I talk to them very often, especially me ex-teammates and a lot of people I used to play baseball with in Korea," Ryu said. "They contact me pretty often, whether it's good or bad."
So far, it's been mostly good.
Austin Laymance is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.