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International Free Agent Profile: Seung-hwan Oh

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Already a record holder in South Korea and Japan, can reliever Seung-hwan Oh have an equally effective career in the United States, and should it be with the Mets?

Seung-Hwan Oh
Seung-Hwan Oh
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Seung-hwan Oh, holder of the KBO single-season saves record, was born Jeongeup, a city in south-central South Korea. Known as "the Stone Buddha" because of his steely resolve, unshakable determination, and cold, emotionless face on the mound, Oh is among the most decorated relievers in the KBO.

Though he was originally a starting pitcher, the right-hander converted to the outfield while attending high school after suffering an arm injury that threatened his baseball career. As a position player, Oh showed some intriguing potential, but he was ultimately passed over by scouts. Oh attended 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. Instead of starting games, as he did in his high school days, Oh pitched as a reliever in an effort to limit the number of innings placed on his recovering arm. He stayed in that role in 2004, his senior year.

Oh dominated 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 Oh in the second round of the 2005 KBO Draft with the 12th overall pick. He signed with the team and made his professional debut that April.

Oh's rookie season could not have gone any better. That year, he went 10-1 with a 1.15 ERA in 99 innings pitched. He walked 20 batters, struck out 115, locked down 11 holds, and saved 16 games. The Lions made the Korea Series, and in the series, Oh hurled seven scoreless innings, striking out 11 batters. In addition to earning a trip to 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, Oh 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, and 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. He made the All-Star team in both years, making him a four-time KBO All-Star.

In 2009, for the first time in his career, Oh showed signs of weakness. His temporary slide began during the 2009 World Baseball Classic finals, when he allowed three hits and two runs in the eighth inning of a game that was tied 2-2. The malaise carried 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 fourth-most in the league, and he maintained his high strikeout rate with 51 that season. But Oh's injury issues continued into 2010, as he pitched in only 16 games and was not particularly effective.

Oh came into the 2011 season well rested and fully healed, and it showed as he returned to form. He pitched 57 innings that year, going 1-0 with 47 saves to tie his KBO and Asian record set years earlier. He also saved his 200th game and, in doing so, set the international record for fewest games needed (333) to notch 200 saves, beating Jonathan Papelbon's record of 359. Oh ended the year with a microscopic 0.63 ERA, striking out 76 batters while walking only 11. For his performance, he was named as one of the finalists for the KBO MVP Award.

Though he went 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—Oh 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 fifth All-Star game, and for his play during the Korean Series, he 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 and saved 39 games, while striking out 81 batters and walking only 13. Oh made the All-Star team for the sixth time in his career, and he won his fourth championship ring. In 2013, he saved 28 games, posting a 1.74 ERA. Throughout the season, rumors followed the reliever about being posted, as more and more MLB and NPB teams began scouting him. After Samsung captured their third-straight Korea Series victory, the team gave its star closer permission to test foreign markets. He eventually decided to play ball in Japan, signing a two-year, ¥850 million (roughly $6.9 million) contract with the Hanshin Tigers, one of a handful of teams that were looking to acquire his services.

Oh had a tremendous debut season with the Tigers: The right-hander was the best closer in the Central League, appearing in 64 games and closing out 39 of them, with a 1.76 ERA, 81 strikeouts, and 13 walks. His 2015 season was similar, as he appeared in 63 games and saved 41 of them, while posting a 2.73 ERA, 66 strikeouts, and 16 walks. In his two years the Tigers, the Stone Buddha recorded 80 saves, making him the holder of numerous records, including the most saves by a foreign pitcher for the Tigers, the most saves for a Korean pitcher, and the single-season record for most saves by a foreign pitcher.

Though sources close to Oh had previously given the impression that he was open to staying in Japan when his contract expired, his representatives outright stated that the pitcher was looking to play baseball in the United States at the conclusion of the 2015 season. Specifically, Oh's representatives said, "We first needed to talk with Hanshin, but our focus is on playing in the United States...Oh has accomplished a lot of things in Japan. Now, it's a new start."

KBO

YEAR AGE G IP ERA FIP K BB
2011 28 54 57 0.64 1.56 76 11
2012 29 50 55.2 1.94 1.22 81 13
2013 30 48 51.2 1.74 2.69 54 10

NPB

YEAR AGE G IP ERA FIP K BB
2014 31 64 66.2 1.76 2.23 81 13
2015 32 63 69.1 2.73 3.01 66 16

Oh has a fairly unremarkable delivery devoid of hitches, pauses, or any other kind of flourishes common in South Korea and Japan. He throws from an easy three-quarters arm slot and finds himself in good fielding positioning after he follows through.

The right-hander throws a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid-90s. He is a smart pitcher, and he understands how to read the situation at the plate and on the basepaths, and how to 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, Oh throws a slider. The slider sits in the 80s and is more slurvy than hard-breaking, meaning that 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. He rarely uses his changeup, and more often than not throws it from a different arm angle than he throws his other pitches. It therefore seems more like a "surprise" pitch to throw batters off, rather than a real part of his pitching repertoire.

Oh 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. In short, he doesn't like throwing meatballs over the center of the plate.

Is Oh the type of pitcher the Mets should consider adding to their still-incomplete 2016 bullpen?