Seung-Hwan Oh, holder of the KBO single-season saves record, was born Jeongeup, a city in south-central South Korea known for its beautiful fall flora. Known as "The Stone Buddha" because of his steely resolve, unshakable determination, and cold, emotionless face on the mound, the Samsung Lion is among the most decorated relievers in the KBO.
Originally a pitcher, Oh converted to the outfield while attending high school after suffering an arm injury that threatened his baseball career. As a position player, the stocky right-hander showed some intriguing potential, but he was ultimately passed over by both MLB and KBO scouts.
As a result, Oh decided to go to college, attending Dankook University, one of South Korea's oldest and most prestigious universities. Although he intended to play baseball for the school, he sat out his first two years because of Tommy John surgery. When he was able to return to the baseball field, he returned as a pitcher. Unlike his high school days, Oh pitched as a reliever, in an effort to limit the amount of innings that were placed on his recovering arm. He stayed in that role in 2004, his senior year, owing to the success he was having coming into games in short spurts. He dominated in South Korea's college circuit and helped lead the South Korean National team to a bronze medal in the World Collegiate Baseball Championship. His performance in 2003 and 2004 got him noticed by the scouts who glossed over him years earlier. The Samsung Lions selected Seung-Hwan in the 2nd round of the 2005 KBO Draft with the 12th overall pick. The right-hander signed with the team, and made his professional debut that April.
Oh's rookie season could not have gone better. For the year, he went 10-1 with a 1.15 ERA in 99 innings pitched. He walked 20 batters, struck out a 115, locked down 11 holds, and saved 16 games. The Lions made the Korea Series, and in the series, Oh hurled an additional seven scoreless innings, striking out 11 more batters. In addition to making the KBO All-Star Game, the reliever won the Korea Series Most Valuable Player Award, was the KBO Rookie of the Year, and placed second in KBO MVP voting. His sophomore season was just as good: in 79.1 innings, Oh had a 1.59 ERA, striking out 109 while walking 12 batters. He saved 47 games that year, breaking the KBO record of 42 and the Asian record of 46.
Once again, he was an All-Star and a Korea Series champion. In 2006, he also won his first KBO Relief Man Award, and placed in third in KBO MVP voting. In addition to the work he put in with the Lions, Oh pitched on the South Korean National Team in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. The reliever appeared in four games, closing out one. In the three innings he pitched, he did not allow a single run, hit, or walk, while he struck out three.
The 2007 season was more of the same for the youngster who was quickly cementing himself among the best relievers in the league. In 64.1 innings, he went 4-4 with a league-leading 40 saves. He posted a 1.40 ERA and struck out 69 batters. His 2008 numbers were almost identical: a 1.40 ERA and 39 saves in 57.2 innings, leading the league in saves for a third straight season. Both years, he made the All-Star team, making the youngster a four-time KBO All-Star.
In 2009, for the first time in his career, Seung-Hwan Oh showed weakness. It began during the 2009 World Baseball Classic finals, when he allowed three hits and two runs in the 8th inning of the 2-2 tie. The malaise carried on into the regular season, as shoulder and elbow issues limited him to only 31.2 ineffective innings. Though his ERA rose dramatically because of a sudden propensity for giving up home runs, his 19 saves were still 4th in the league, and he did maintain his high K/9 rate, striking out 51 batters. His injury issues carried on into 2010, as he pitched in only 16 games and was not particularly effective.
Number 21 came into the 2011 season well rested and fully healed, and it showed, as he returned to form. He pitched 57 innings, going 1-0 with 47 saves, tying his KBO and Asian record set years before. During the year, he saved his 200th game, setting the record for fewest games needed to save that many games, with 333; he beat Jonathan Papelbon's record of 359. The right-hander ended the year with a microscopic 0.63 ERA, striking out 76 batters to 11 walks. For his performance during the season, he was named as one of the finalists for the KBO MVP Award.
Though he did go on the record earlier in the year as saying he wanted to be the first full-time closer to be named KBO MVP, he eventually withdrew his name from the race, lending his support to teammate Hyung-Woo Choi, who led the KBO in home runs and RBI. Despite removing himself from the MVP race—the first player in Korea to ever do so—he still finished second in the MVP race, a testament to how impressive the Stone Buddha was that season. The right-hander was selected to his 5th All-Star game, and in addition, for his play during the Korean Series, Oh won his second Korea Series MVP Award.
The 29-year-old had another impressive season in 2012. In 55.2 innings, he posted a 1.94 ERA, saving 39 games. He struck out 81 batters and only walked 13. Oh made the All-Star team for the 6th time in his career, and he won his 4th championship ring, as the Samsung Lions went all the way. In 2013, he saved 28 games, posting a 1.74 ERA. Throughout the season, rumors followed the reliever about being posted by his team, as more and more MLB and NPB teams began scouting him. After Samsung captured their third-straight Korea Series victory, they gave permission to their star closer to test foreign markets. If he decides he wants to pitch in America, on an MLB team, he will be posted. If he decides he wants to pitch in Japan, on a NPB team, he will be loaned to that team after appropriate financial compensation is worked out. As of November 7th, he has shown interest playing in Japan, and more specifically, interest in the NPB's Central League, with the Hanshin Tigers being the only team showing any interest in him.
His KBO stats are as follows:
Oh throws a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90s, that can be dialed up as high as 97 miles per hour. He is a smart pitcher, and he understands how to read the situation at the plate and on the basepaths and adjust accordingly. He will periodically throws the fastball a bit slower, trading in some velocity for sinking movement, or cut the fastball against lefties, trading in some velocity for additional horizontal cutting movement.
In addition to his fastball, he throws a slider. The slider sits in the 80s and is more slurvy than hard breaking- it breaks further down than it does to the side. Periodically, he throws in a curveball that may or may not be intentional—as opposed to a slider that has a lot of vertical movement but not a lot of horizontal movement—and a changeup. The changeup is rarely used, and it is more often than not thrown from a different arm angle, so it seems more like a "surprise" pitch to throw batters off, rather than a real part of his pitching repertoire.
He isn't a finesse pitcher, but his location maps show the same thing year in and year out: plenty of pitches along the edges of the strike zone, with a big gaping hole down the middle; he doesn't like throwing meatballs over the center of the plate.
Does He Make Sense For The Mets?
As has been the case with other relievers mentioned in this series, the Mets are going into the 2014 season with a strong bullpen, at least on paper. In order for Oh to be worth investing in, he would have to represent an upgrade over what the team has. Unlike most of the other relievers profiled thus far, I do think that Oh represents that upgrade. The question is, is an upgrade at a position that the Mets don't necessarily need to invest in using the team's limited funds in the most financially prudent manner?
Seung-Hwan profiles similar to Kyuji Fujikawa and Chang-Yom Lim, in the sense that, like Oh, the two were both elite relievers over the age of 30 in Japan. The Chicago Cubs signed both pitchers, Fujikawa to a two year, $9.5 million dollar contract, with a team option for 2015 worth $5.5 million dollars and Lim to a one-year minor league contract. Because Lim was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and the Cubs knew that he wouldn't be able to pitch until late in the season, Fujikawa is the better comparison to Seung-Hwan. The biggest difference between he and the former Hanshin Tiger is that Fujikawa was an international free agent who elected to come to play in North America, whereas Oh will cost a team a posting fee, in addition to a contract. Because that posting fee isn't likely to be particularly large, I don't see it as depressing the overall contract that a team might want to offer him, to recoup some of their losses.
What will likely depress Oh's value is the fact that Fujikawa didn't exactly stand out. The Japanese right-hander had a season is somewhat hard to gauge, since his time on the mound was limited because of elbow issues, and eventually Tommy John surgery. Though he ended the year with a 5.25 ERA in 12 innings/12 appearances, he was only scored upon in three of those outings, and he struck out 14 batters while walking two unintentionally.
I don't envision his posting fee to be particularly large, even though various NPB teams are supposedly in the hunt for his services in addition to whatever MLB interest he generates. A limited MLB market to begin with will keep the posting price down, and NPB teams entering the fray isn't going to particularly upset it, since, historically, NPB teams do not spend anywhere near as much as MLB teams do on players. As of September 2013, the Red Sox, Tigers, and Orioles have all been confirmed scouting the relief ace, according to Sponichi News, while the New York Post reported that the Yankees were scouting him as well. Sports Hochi News is reporting that the Softbank Hawks, who are interested in Oh, are floating a two-year deal worth around ¥400 million . If true, that would comes out to roughly $2 million dollars per year. In MLB, he would likely make more, but not that much more, certainly less than $5 million dollars per year.
I would like the Mets to pursue Oh. He has a plus fastball, a slider that should work in MLB, and a track record of nothing but success. Given everything the team has going on currently, however, I feel it is hard to justify such an expenditure.