Who Is Seung-Hwan Oh?

The Cardinals have signed a Korean right-hander named Seung-Hwan Oh to a one-year deal with a club option. Maybe this won’t be a big deal. After all, he is just a reliever without a trick pitch or big velocity numbers. In any case, the hype machine that sometimes provides a deluge of information on Japanese pitchers has not worked its magic on Oh. We know very little.

We know his nickname is Stone Buddha and The Final Boss — nicknames he got from being an affectless closer with great numbers in Korea. And if we mine the reports and the numbers, we can learn a little more about a pitcher that might end up setting up for one of the best teams in baseball.

Like Kenta Maeda before, we have a tiny snippet of PITCHf/x information on Oh, from international competition in 2009. It’s really bad news, at first, but context provides us many clues.

Supposedly, he threw 86-87 mph with the fastball that day in 2009. That would have been the second-worst fastball velocity among qualified relievers in the league last year, and second only to a submariner with a changeup. What happened to those reports of mid-90s velocity?

Apparently, injury. In 2009, when he threw 18 pitches that registered on PITCHf/x, he was dealing with elbow soreness that was hurting his velocity. He then persevered through shoulder problems in 2010. The mid-90s velocity did come back by the time he was healthy in Japan’s NPB the last few years.

That’s 2014, and 151 kph is 94 mph. But that’s more of a max these days. Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads, who watches the NPB for Stats, LLC, had Oh averaging 91 mph in Japan last year. We’re still talking bottom-30 type velocity, but at least it looks a little better now.

If you watch the entirety of that video, you’ll notice that the fastball is pretty important. He throws it a lot. An 87 mph slider is there, sometimes. You’ll have to get through a few outings to even see the curveball. It’s a fastball and a hard slider for the most part.

The fastball gets swings and misses — he strikes two of the three batters out with it in the clip — but guys who rely on the fastball for swings and misses often don’t have the strikeout rates of other pitchers. And so it is with Oh. Last year, he failed to strike out a batter per inning and his Clay Davenport translations suggest that his 2015 Japanese performance is equivalent to six strikeouts per nine in MLB terms.

A 91 mph fastball without a great swing-and-miss pitch? It’s like we’re talking about Seth Maness without the velocity right now. Seems like a poor bet to take over the eighth inning in St. Louis.

There is one aspect we haven’t covered yet. Players often refer to Oh’s fastball as a “Rock Fastball,” which you might normally think is a way to talk about a sinker. But those numbers from 2009 show great rise on his fastball — if he repeats those numbers, he’ll have the third-best rise on a fastball, right behind great FIP-beater Chris Young.

So when the Davenport translations say that Oh will only strike out six per nine and walk two-plus, that doesn’t include the pop-ups you get from a rising fastball. If we look for relievers with rise and good pop-up rates but who lack standout strikeout rates, we find Tyler Clippard, Josh Collmenter, Neal Cotts, and a few lefties. Our comps have improved.

There’s a decent amount of deception in his delivery: Oh hides the ball until late, and he has some wiggle with which he can play. He has good command. Perhaps the slider will be plus and it won’t be all fastball. These things provide the upside, and a one-year, $5 million contract doesn’t require a ton of upside to make the idea a good one. If it doesn’t work out, they’re not on the hook for much.

If it does work out, they will have a Stone Buddha who throws a Rock Fastball with great command, and splits apples (four ways!) with his hands in his free time.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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8 years ago

Is it possible that the Cardinals did this so they can get at least one international signing done before MLB punishes them?

8 years ago
Reply to  aaronsteindler

He doesn’t count against the IFA pool. There’s no way the Cards will be restricted from signing true free agents.

The Real McNulty
8 years ago
Reply to  aaronsteindler

but that fact doesn’t fit into his conspiracy. Let’s ignore it