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(News Focus) Dodgers' Ryu, Reds' Choo enjoy banner seasons in MLB

2013/09/30 09:25

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 30 (Yonhap) -- Two South Korean mainstays in Major League Baseball (MLB) this season, pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers and outfielder Choo Shin-soo of the Cincinnati Reds, established themselves as All-Star caliber big leaguers with their successful 2013 seasons that wrapped up Monday, Korean time.

A third South Korean, pitcher Lim Chang-yong of the Chicago Cubs, got limited opportunities after joining the majors in September but could assume more responsibilities in the Cubs' pen next season.

Ryu took the loss in his final regular season start against the Colorado Rockies on Sunday in Los Angeles. He went a season-low four innings and gave up two earned runs on eight hits and a walk, as the Rockies won 2-1.

The southpaw still ended the season at a solid 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings, with 154 strikeouts and 49 walks, and will receive serious Rookie of the Year consideration in the National League (NL).

In his final regular season game, Choo went 0-for-2 before being taken out in the fourth inning. For 2013, Choo batted .285 with a career-high .423 on-base percentage, which ranked him second in the NL. He hit 21 homers and had 20 steals for his third-career 20-20 season, and also scored 107 runs and drew 112 walks, both second-best totals in the NL.

Lim didn't make an appearance in the Cubs' season finale versus the St. Louis Cardinals. In six appearances, the right-hander gave up three earned runs on six hits in five innings, while walking seven and striking out five.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin throws a pitch against the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 29, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP=Yonhap)

Ryu signed with the Dodgers last December, after pitching seven successful seasons with the Hanwha Eagles in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). After the Eagles posted him for an auction among big league clubs, the Dodgers won the right to negotiate with Ryu with the bid of US$25.7 million, and inked him to a six-year, $36 million contract. That made Ryu the first South Korean player to join the big leagues via the posting system.

Though Ryu had been one of the KBO's most dominant starters, he came into the majors with some question marks. His suspect fitness level and his routine of not throwing in the bullpen in between starts led to concerns that Ryu would face a steep learning curve in his rookie season.

It didn't take Ryu long to silence his critics. Ryu looked shaky in his big league debut against the San Francisco Giants -- taking the loss after giving up 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings -- but earned his first big league win in his very next start, holding the Pittsburgh Pirates to just three hits and two earned runs, and struck out six in 6 1/3 innings.

Over the next five months, Ryu gave the Dodgers a steady dose of solid starts. Only once in his 30 starts did he fail to pitch at least five innings. He gave up three or fewer earned runs in 25 starts, and had one complete game shutout, on May 28 against the Los Angeles Angels. A model of consistency, Ryu went 7-3 in the first half and 7-5 after the All-Star break.

Ryu led the KBO in strikeouts in five out of his seven seasons, and punched out 1,238 batters in 1,269 innings, for a rate of 8.8 Ks per nine innings.

In the big leagues, where his fastball wouldn't overwhelm too many hitters, Ryu changed his game plan. Though he still recorded a solid 7.2 Ks per nine, Ryu has mostly been a groundout pitcher. He finished third in the NL by inducing 26 double plays on the ground.

The lefty has fooled many big leaguers with an array of his looping curve, sharp slider and deceptive changeup.

For next season and beyond, Ryu must address his first-inning woes. Ryu allowed 17 of his 64 earned runs in the first inning for an ERA of 5.10, and seven of 15 homers off Ryu were hit in the opening frame.

Choo was as steady for the Reds as Ryu was for the Dodgers. In his first season with the Reds, after coming over from the Cleveland Indians in a three-way trade in December, Choo has been everything that the Reds had hoped for and more.

The Reds won the NL Central crown in 2012 despite getting virtually no production from the leadoff spot, where seven different players combined for only a .208 batting average and .254 on-base percentage.

As the team's primary leadoff man, Choo changed the complexion of the Reds, with his combination of power, speed and patience at the plate.

The 2013 season was also a significant one for Choo in terms of his long-term financial security. At 31 and eligible for free agency this winter, Choo is in line for a lucrative multi-year deal after his productive 2013. Given his age, it will likely be the last major contract he signs in the big leagues.

He is making $7.38 million this year.

A complete package on offense, Choo found different ways to get on base, drawing 111 walks, the second most in the NL, and also getting hit by an MLB-high 26 pitches.

Cincinnati Reds' Choo Shin-soo hits the game-winning single against the New York Mets on Sept. 23, 2013, in Cincinnati, helping the Reds win 3-2. (AP=Yonhap)

Choo's stat-stuffing performance sent South Korean fans and media scrambling to attach some historic value to his season.

For one, Choo became only the fifth player in big league history to hit 20 homers, steal 20 bases and get hit by 20 pitches. Also, Choo became the 12th MLB player with 20 home runs, 20 steals, 100 runs scored and 100 walks in one season.

The Reds couldn't have asked for much more from Choo, but he experienced problems against left-handers, batting just .215 with no home runs. In comparison, Choo hit .319 with 21 homers against right-handers.

Defensively, Choo had an up-and-down year at center field.

He'd mostly played right field with Cleveland, but with slugger Jay Bruce already in right for the Reds, Choo was penciled in as the center fielder. He had played just 10 games at center prior to this season, and none since 2009.

The former pitching prospect with a strong arm, Choo was a finalist for the AL Gold Glove as the right fielder in 2012. In 2013, though, advanced fielding metrics rank him among the worst full-time center fielders in the entire MLB.

For Ryu and Choo, the season is not over yet. The Dodgers and the Reds are both playoff-bound, with the NL West champion Dodgers facing the Atlanta Braves in the division series and the Reds taking on the Pirates in the one-and-done NL Wild Card game.

Should the Dodgers and the Reds meet in the playoffs, it could also set up the first South Korean pitcher-batter duel in the big league postseason.

Lim, the Cubs' reliever, made six appearances since his call-up from Triple-A earlier this month. The 37-year-old did show some flashes of brilliance but was mostly ineffective in his limited opportunities.

Nonetheless, by making his long-awaited big league debut, Lim completed a remarkable comeback from his second Tommy John elbow reconstructive surgery last summer. A veteran of 18 professional seasons in South Korea and Japan, Lim signed with the Cubs last December and spent the first half of the year recovering from the operation.

Lim had been a top-notch closer in both South Korea and Japan, but with Kevin Gregg inserted as the Cubs' closer, Lim will likely be assigned a setup role next season, should he be back with the big league club.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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