No. 99 is back on Canadian soil.
More than 31 years since Wayne Gretzky traded in the frostbitten streets of Edmonton for the palm-tree-lined boulevards of Los Angeles, hockey’s most iconic jersey number has returned to the Canadian sports scene … on the back of a Toronto Blue Jays jersey.
Canada’s lone baseball franchise unveiled its prized winter acquisition Friday in the shape of former Los Angeles Dodger left-hander Hyun-jin Ryu, who pulled on his new jersey bearing the same number he has worn throughout his six-year major-league career.
But according to baseball superagent Scott Boras, who helped broker the four-year, US$80-million deal, the legendary digits were never supposed to make a permanent home south of the border.
“Well, actually Canada lent No. 99 to L.A.,” said Boras, whose deals for clients this off-season now top US$1-billion. “So with Hyun-jin, we thought we’d return it back to Canada.”
The connection between Los Angeles and Canada, or at least its baseball team, runs deeper than a couple of digits though. Both Ryu, and in particular Boras, who did much of the talking on behalf of his client – the first South Korean pitcher to start a World Series game – see parallels between the cities’ baseball franchises.
In 2013, Ryu’s first season with the Dodgers, the team embarked on what has since become the longest postseason streak in franchise history, currently standing at seven successive years and which has included back-to-back World Series appearances in 2017-18. Along the way, the team rebuilt its nucleus, and went from being dependent upon high-priced free agents such as Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to putting trust in its homegrown talent.
The green core in Dodger blue that has emerged over that spell has included the likes of Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, who both won National League rookie-of-the-year honours and became perennial all-stars, with Bellinger taking home last season’s NL most-valuable-player award.
With the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio in tow – players Boras described as coming from “baseball royalty” – the hope is that the South Korean’s steadying hand can help Toronto’s inexperienced lineup develop along a similar growth curve.
The addition of last season’s major-league earned-run-average leader can only help in that effort, particularly when it comes to having a chance to win games with the help of a pitcher who only needs three or four runs of support to earn a win.
“You’ll find that being in games and being competitive, it allows players to grow earlier and allows them to be in situations where the games are on the line,” Boras said. “Those situations develop players a lot quicker and allow them to play certainly at a playoff-level calibre much earlier in their careers.”
Ryu led the way in 2019 with a 14-5 record and 2.32 ERA in 182 2/3 innings pitched and finished second in the NL Cy Young voting to New York Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom. He also became an all-star for the first time.
But while the 32-year-old (he turns 33 on March 25) has had a checkered injury history – with 10 trips to the injured list since 2014 – and missed the entire 2015 season after surgery on his pitching shoulder, his career consistency over his six seasons has him among exalted company.
According to Baseball Reference’s Player Index, since 1978 Ryu is one of just four pitchers with 100-or-more starts to have a career ERA below 3.00, with the left-hander’s 2.98 mark putting him alongside former teammate Clayton Kershaw, deGrom and Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez.
For a Blue Jays team that had a combined ERA of 5.25 in 2019, and used 21 starting pitchers, to get anything approaching that kind of consistency in the American League East will be worth the outlay. He doesn’t come cheap, however – the deal’s value places it below just Russell Martin’s five-year, US$82-million pact as the most expensive free-agent deal in team history.
Ryu has never been a power pitcher – his fastball hovers around 90 miles an hour – but for Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, his accuracy and unpredictability are his calling cards.
“What really stood out was his ability to command the ball so exceptionally well, to get outs at every quadrant of the zone with four different pitches,” Atkins said.
But Martin, the former Blue Jays catcher, says that precision pitchers like Ryu often get overlooked in a game that prioritizes power. Having played with the 6-foot-3 South Korean during the 2019 season in Los Angeles, the Canadian catcher was in no doubt as to which precision pitcher Ryu most compares to when asked.
“Greg Maddux,” the Canadian catcher told ESPN last season, having caught Maddux during the Hall of Famer’s two separate spells with the Dodgers.
Ryu is well aware of the sport’s fascination with speed and power, but having yet to miss the playoffs in his six-year major-league career and with a 54-33 career record and 3-2 postseason record, he’s not about to alter his approach.
“Obviously speed is an important factor, but ever since [I] was young, [I’ve] focused on pitching on more than just being a fastball, because if you throw it down the middle, [the other team is] ahead,” Ryu said through a translator.