Sometime in the next six or 12 months, Julio Urías will attempt to return to the big leagues from major shoulder surgery.
In the meantime, with much less fanfare than one would anticipate for Urías, Hyun-Jin Ryu is making one of the most impressive and odds-defying comebacks ever by a Dodger pitcher.
Ryu is …
- the first Dodger since Darren Dreifort to make 25 starts after missing more than a season with an injury. (Dreifort was actually a reliever in 1994-95 when he made his first extended stay on the disabled list.)
- the first Dodger starting pitcher since Orel Hershiser to miss more than a year (April 1990-May 1991) and then return to the rotation to make at least 25 starts.
- the first Dodger starting pitcher since Tommy John to sit out an entire season (1975) and then return to the rotation for at least 25 starts.
John went 21 months between starts, from July 17, 1974 to April 16, 1976. Ryu missed 22 months, from September 2014 to July 2016, made one MLB appearance — then went another nine months without throwing an official pitch.
And now, Ryu has thrown nearly 150 innings since nearly being mothballed. At least dating back to the franchise’s move to Los Angeles, no pitcher in a Dodger uniform (and there have been several remarkable ones, I hear) has done anything like it.
Ryu underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his left shoulder on May 21, 2015. This was not Tommy John surgery, which is serious but with a fairly optimistic record of recovery, like Eddie Murphy’s film career. This was something more dicey, like Eddie Murphy’s singing career.
“Comeback stories range from successes Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling to unfortunate endings like Jason Schmidt, Mark Prior and Mark Mulder,” wrote Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
Ryu went to great lengths to avoid the operation. Ryu’s last start of an otherwise successful first two years with the Dodgers (56 games, 344 innings, 3.17 ERA, 111 ERA+) lasted only one inning, when he allowed four of the nine batters he faced September 12, 2014 at San Francisco to score. He had already spent two stints on the disabled list that year, and he wouldn’t pitch again for the playoff-bound Dodgers in ’14 — nor was he able to take the mound in a regular season game in 2015, with mixed signals about his recovery persisting until surgery became the last remaining option.
More than a year later, Ryu was still working his way back to a major-league mound, and when he finally made his first start of 2016 on July 7, throwing 89 pitches and allowing six runs in 4 2/3 innings, it would also be his last. Scheduled to make his next start after the All-Star break, he instead tumbled back to the disabled list — and that was it for 2016.
Come April 2017, Ryu had faced all of 33 MLB hitters in the previous 29 months when he finally took consecutive turns in the Dodger rotation, totaling 9 1/3 innings with 16 baserunners allowed. With Alex Wood emerging, Brandon McCarthy seemingly healthy and Urìas poised to be better than any of them, Ryu’s comeback seemed about as promising as that of Ironside (what, you don’t remember?).
But the big lefty started to pull things together, going six innings against the Rockies on April 18 and then allowing only a run in each of his next two starts that month. The year would not be without its ups and downs, ending without a playoff appearance for the National League champion Dodgers, but overall, Ryu matched his 111 ERA+ (3.77 ERA) from 2013-14, in 24 starts and one four-inning shutout relief appearance.
Three starts into the 2018 season, it’s unclear what kind of year Ryu will have. He struggled in his first outing at Arizona, allowing three runs on five hits and five walks in 3 2/3 innings, but in 12 innings over his past two starts, he has allowed only two runs on four hits and a walk while striking out 17. Whatever happens, I’d venture to say that one year ago, few would have predicted that kind of performance to be possible for Ryu.
Ryu remains a long way from achieving the kind of second act authored by John or Hershiser. John threw an astonishing 2,544 2/3 innings after surgery — just the 640 1/3 he threw with the Dodgers from 1976-78 is nearly 150 more than Ryu’s MLB career total. Hershiser added another 1,648 after his operation (a pioneering labrum repair, as discussed in Brothers in Arms). Both are in the circle resting just outside the Hall of Fame.
But the point isn’t whether Ryu is reborn as an ace or long-term innings eater. For him to come back and be an above-average member of the Dodger starting rotation, after losing essentially two entire seasons to injury … that’s its own kind of legend, and one that Dodger fans should step back and appreciate.
And hopefully, Urías does Ryu even better when he returns.
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