ANAHEIM, Calif. — The applause emanating from the Dodgers’ weight room generally means that the best pitcher in baseball has astonished his teammates yet again. Lefty Hyun-jin Ryu can do this in any number of ways: He comes by his majors-leading 1.36 ERA through deception and pinpoint command, so he regularly sends opposing hitters back to the dugout shaking their heads, unable to understand how a series of 90 mph four-seamers eluded them.
But what has he done now, the day after allowing one run and striking out six in six innings? Strength coach Brandon McDaniel, standing with his back to the room, laughs. “Probably a sit-up,” he says.
Ryu baffles teammates more with his process than with his results. They have all seen the way he dances five different pitches in four different quadrants, giving hitters 20 different possibilities for which to prepare. If only he could pitch a full season at full health, they have thought for years, Ryu could dominate every fifth day. It’s the other four they still don’t quite understand.
Ryu does not throw bullpens between starts. He does not lift heavy weights. He does not play catch at full strength.
Righty Walker Buehler, who throws as hard as he can as often as he can, jokes often with Ryu, “Everything you do makes me sick.”
The applause is another joke. Ryu works with a personal trainer, Yong-il Kim, who acknowledges each completed set with a clap. Given how hilarious they find his workouts, the rest of the Dodgers have begun joining in.
Even Ryu’s post-workout regimen fascinates his teammates. The Dodgers have a steam room that can fit half a dozen players at a time. Most of them set the thermostat around 110 degrees and spend 10 minutes inside chatting. Ryu prefers 125 for up to half an hour, cross-legged and quiet. Everyone else uses the hot tub at 100 or so and the cold tub around 50. Ryu adds some five degrees to the hot and subtracts some five from the cold.
Righty Ross Stripling saw an episode of Modern Marvels on the History Channel about people who don’t feel extreme temperatures. “I think he’s one of them,” Stripling says. “He’s a modern marvel.”
Ryu demurs. “I don’t really think that’s that special,” he says. “But I sometimes hear from my teammates how hot it is or how cold it is.”
The difference in Ryu’s tolerance is so extreme that the room clears when he enters. The other players know they can’t take it.
“A lot of us time our steam rooms around Hyun-jin’s schedule so we’re not in there,” Stripling says.
With the results Ryu is seeing, though, they joke about copying him. Ryu leads NL pitchers in WAR with 3.7, and is third only to teammate Cody Bellinger and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich in the league. Ryu’s ERA is half a run better than the next best pitcher’s. He allows an average of seven men on base per nine innings. He is striking out 15.4 batters for every man he walks. The next best figure, by the Tigers’ Matthew Boyd, is 7.0.
“I am very surprised,” Ryu says through interpreter Bryan Lee. “I think every factor has gone my way: the luck, my teammates being behind me, the work I’ve put in. It’s pretty early in the season, though, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”
Stripling disagrees. “The [ERA] number might be a little surprising,” he says, “But everyone knew he had the pitchability. When he’s healthy, he has the ability to throw 2–0 change-ups and 3–1 curveballs. Mike Trout struck out twice [against him], and keeping him off balance is nearly impossible. I think we knew it was there. It was just a matter of staying healthy.”
That may be the most amazing element of Ryu’s performance. He underwent Tommy John surgery in high school, then starred for the Hanhwa Eagles of the KBO. Before the 2013 season, Los Angeles paid $25.7 million to the Eagles, then $36 million to Ryu over six years. Ryu pitched well that season but lost a month of ’14 to left-shoulder inflammation. He tore his labrum the following March and missed the year. In ’16 he made only one start before elbow tendinitis shut him down. He began ’17 having thrown 4 2/3 innings in 28 months. He struggled, compiling a 3.77 ERA amid foot and leg injuries. He pitched well last year but lost three months to a groin strain.
And yet here he is, dominating the league. Some of that he credits to yet another unusual routine: the most intense shoulder workout the Dodgers have ever seen. “That’s one thing I agree with my teammates,” Ryu says. “It’s a bit intense.”
Every day he gets a soft-tissue massage and stretches, whether he is pitching or not. On the day after his starts he does shoulder exercises with weights. On the second day he uses a shoulder tube. On the third day he works his upper body and returns to his shoulder program. On the fourth day he scouts his next opponent.
It works for him. Everything seems to. In the weight room, around the time of the applause, Buehler yells from the squat rack, “Hey, get in here! Maybe you’ll throw 96!”
Ryu laughs. “I don’t need it!”