Korean save master Seung-hwan Oh is a free agent this season, and has declared that he intends to leave the Japanese league in search of the verdant pastures of Major League Baseball.
Unless you're an avid follower of international baseball, you likely have not heard of Mr. Oh before. So here's an introduction.
He's Korea's answer to Mariano Rivera. But with a much, much broader pitching arsenal.
In this article, MLB Trade Rumors takes a look at Seung-hwan Oh and profiles his accomplishments in Korea. Needless to say, they are myriad...and they are stout. First of all, his nickname is one of the greatest this writer has ever heard: "The Final Boss". Now, that's no reason for a thinking baseball team to sign a player. But it is a reason for a passionate fan to get excited. Who doesn't want their closer to enter the game to the "Mortal Kombat" theme music and scream "TOASTY!" every time he strikes out a hitter? Or chant "FINISH HIM!" when there's two strikes in the count?
Meanwhile, he's also an elite relief pitcher. In his nine seasons in Korea's KBO baseball league, Oh posted a gaudy career ERA of 1.69. He then moved on to the more well-regarded Nippon Pro Baseball league in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers and continued to pitch brilliantly, posting a 2.25 ERA there over the 2014-2015 seasons. In his 11 professional seasons, Seung-hwan Oh has glittered: 1.81 career ERA, 357 saves, 10.7 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9.
Not everything with Oh is roses, of course. He has had two different arm surgeries (one was in college in 2001, and the other much more recently, in 2010) but has come back brilliantly from each. He posted the best year of his career the season after his most recent surgery with 47 saves in 54 games (57.0 IP), a 0.63 ERA, a 0.667 WHIP, 12.0 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, and an infinitesimal 0.3 HR/9 allowed. In other words, video game numbers.
Again: The Final Boss. Let it ruminate inside your head for a minute.
While his numbers weren't quite as eye-popping in Japan, it's also much closer to Major League competition levels - and there are already very good track records established for relievers jumping from Japan to the Major Leagues.
As for his repertoire, he features a fastball which has been clocked between 90 and 97 miles per hour...though it is most consistently at the 92-94 mph range. He also features what appears to be a vulcan change, or some kind of split fingered pitch. It seems to be his best out-pitch, especially to left handed batters. He can make it dive straight down out of the zone, or dive down and away from a left handed batter, and it consistently sits in the 85 mile per hour range. He also features a very sharp slider that can range in velocity from 80 to 89 miles per hour. Its typical movement isn't a huge, sweeping break, but rather a very hard, downward bite that resembles Luke Gregerson's slider quite a bit. It's particularly effective down and away against right handed batters - as most good right handed sliders are. He also features a massive, looping curve ball that clocks in at 70 miles per hour or so. It's not quite as sharp as Roy Oswalt's curve ball once was, but the jarring change in velocity is similar, and it must have an exquisite spin rate - a feature which we're all aware, thanks to Collin McHugh, that Brent Strom loves.
And that fastball. It's nicknamed "The Stone Fastball", and when watching contact being made on it, one who is versed in baseball acumen can tell easily that more than a few pairs of hands were left feeling as if a beehive suddenly took up residence within. It is what scouts refer to as a "heavy" fastball. One that, thanks to its natural bore and the efficacy of his secondary pitches, looks a lot faster than the 93 mile per hour average that it is.
Here are a few videos of Seung-hwan Oh pitching, to give you an idea of the kind of stuff he's made of:
In this first video, Oh's sequence begins with a curve ball - the only one any of these three videos show him throwing, though he does throw one in a longer (7 minute) video that's not featured here. Note the frequent use of the split fingered pitch, along with the command of the lower AND upper part of the strike zone. Again, as Collin McHugh has shown Astros fans recently, a pitcher who can command the top of the strike zone (climbing the ladder, as baseball aficionados have referred to the practice for generations) without getting hit hard can find marked success in the major leagues.
And yes, we here at TCB did indeed notice the hilariously outstanding hi-jinks of the umpire.
In this second video, you get a better sense for the "Stone Fastball"/split finger dichotomy of his attack. The first hitter is well, well behind the fastball (climbing the ladder) on the strike out pitch ("TOASTY!" You know you want to) while the next two each chase the nasty split. This video is with the NPB Tigers, from April 18th of this past season:
In the third and final video featured here, Seung-hwan Oh exhibits incredible control and once again flashes the brilliance of his split finger and fastball combination. He baffles hitters with each pitch, roundly abusing all three hitters. This video is from June 7th of this past season.
As you can clearly see, this is a seasoned pro who knows how to pitch - not just how to throw - and has the volatile arsenal that clearly fits at the back end of a bullpen. He may not post a 1.81 career ERA in Major League Baseball, but there is established precedent to expect that he could well post an ERA in the mid to high 2's. Part of what Astros fans have to remember is, unlike hitters or starting pitchers, a reliever like Oh would only pitch approximately 70 innings a season, max. So it would take quite some time before Major League Hitters had enough time facing him to start really getting comfortable. Assuming that they ever did get comfortable, of course - perhaps he adjusts and stays a step ahead of the hitters. Or perhaps there's a learning curve and it takes him some time to adjust to the major leagues. But given the Astros' need of high powered out-getters at the back of the bullpen, the relatively solidly established track record of successful Nippon relievers transitioning to Major League relievers, and Oh's general repertoire and command - not to mention his free agent status, negating a potential bidding war in a posting process that's not necessary; he can just negotiate as any other free agent would - all say to this writer that a three year (hopefully with the third year being a team option) contract that's somewhat front-loaded could be an excellent, excellent investment for the Astros this offseason.
What do you think? Please feel free to weigh in below.
Some mood music for the conversation: