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Seung-hwan Oh is dominating big league hitters

The Cardinals made the bargain signing of 2016 as Seung-hwan Oh has proven himself to be an elite relief pitcher.

Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is currently in the midst of an unprecedented relief pitching market. To acquire elite relief talent will cost a team either its top prospects in trade or a huge amount of money in free agency. Even guys without the label of "proven closer" are getting paid a hefty sum for their services.

Just take a look at the free agent relief pitchers who signed eight-figure contracts before the 2016 season.

Player Signing Team Years Amount 2016 IP FIP RE24 2016 fWAR
John Axford Athletics 2 $10 M 52.0 4.34 -10.55 0.0
Antonio Bastardo Mets 2 $12 M 52.0 4.92 -3.43 -0.1
Steve Cishek Mariners 2 $10 M 51.2 3.75 4.39 0.6
Tyler Clippard Diamondbacks 2 $12.25 M 47.1 4.12 3.88 0.4
Shawn Kelley Nationals 3 $15 M 47.1 3.28 1.88 0.7
Mark Lowe Tigers 2 $13 M 41.2 6.37 -17.81 -0.7
Ryan Madson Athletics 3 $22 M 52.2 4.16 6.33 0.2
Jason Motte Rockies 2 $10 M 20.2 5.96 -6.74 -0.3
Darren O’Day Orioles 4 $31 M 27.1 4.65 3.04 0.0
Tony Sipp Astros 3 $18 M 34.2 6.38 -9.51 -0.7
Joakim Soria Royals 3 $25 M 55.1 4.40 2.66 0.0

Mark Lowe and Tony Sipp, woof. Even aside from those two total disasters that’s still quite a lot of money for, other than Shawn Kelley, a lot of middling to bad performances.

With the cost of impact relievers now through the roof, finding a steal can be a huge windfall for a team. The Mets signing Addison Reed for one year and $5.3 million to see him produce a 2.01 FIP and 2.0 fWAR to this point in 2016 has been a huge bargain bin acquisition. Striking gold like that is rare, though, which is why one relief acquisition from last offseason stands above the rest: the Cardinals' signing of Korean pitcher Seung-hwan Oh.

Prior to his move to Major League Baseball, Oh had spent nine seasons with the Samsung Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) followed by two years with the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League (JPCL). In the span of those 11 seasons, he posted a 1.81 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 5.18 K/BB. With consistently exceptional performances in late-game situations, Oh earned a spectacular nickname that anyone who grew up with video games will appreciate: "The Final Boss."

Oh would bring those impressive numbers and his incredible nickname overseas in 2016 by signing a one-year deal with the Cardinals that totaled just $5 million after incentives. The deal included a team option for a second year that can be worth a total of $6 million with certain undisclosed performance bonuses. After what he’s done in his first season with the Cardinals, we can consider that option as good as picked up. Check out Oh’s numbers this year and where they rank among the 142 qualified relievers.

IP ERA FIP fWAR K% BB% K-BB% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
Seung Hwan Oh 67 1.75 1.97 2.3 33.3% 6.2% 27.1% 52.1% 50.5% 72.4% 65.0% 18.0%
Rank Out Of 142 Qualified Relievers 4th 9th 5th 3rd 12th 31st 10th 10th 121st 141st 135th 4th

In nearly every important statistic, Oh ranks near the top (except the contact numbers where he's near the bottom, but that's a good thing!). He combines a well above average strikeout rate with a below average walk rate to place 10th in strikeout minus walk percentage. His swinging-strike rate is elite because while Oh induces a ton of swings, batters have a difficult time making contact, especially and most importantly on balls in the strike zone. All of this dominance has led to 2.3 fWAR, trailing only Dellin Betances and Kenley Jansen in the category. Oh is surrounded by elite company in his first year of Major League Baseball.

When Trevor Rosenthal stumbled in June, finding himself seemingly unable to throw a strike, Mike Matheny turned to Oh to fill the team’s closer role. He has taken over the job without missing a beat. With help from Brooks Baseball, let’s take a look at the main two pitches Oh is working with.

Pitch Type AVG Velocity H Mov V Mov Usage
Fastball 93.5 -4.0 9.6 61.7%
Slider 86.1 1.3 3.0 29.5%

While he does also have a changeup that he utilizes exclusively against left-handers, most of the time Oh attacks hitters with a fastball and slider combo. The most noticeable thing about this chart is that there is nothing here that immediately makes you think these pitches are dominant. The velocity on each pitch is good but not out of the ordinary. The movement is about what you’d expect from quality fastballs and sliders. If anything, it’s a bit of a surprise that the slider doesn’t have more horizontal movement to it, as you would expect a bit more cut to the pitch. Regardless of any movement shortcomings, however, the slider is a legit out pitch for Oh.

Here he is making Melvin Upton Jr. look silly:

Seung Hwan Oh Slider RH

Proving unafraid to throw the pitch against lefties as well, here’s Oh fooling Freddie Freeman with the offering:

Seung Hwan Oh Slider LH

Observing that Oh has good but not mind-blowing stuff leads us to look at his command. While it’s hard to quantify a pitchers’ precise command, general control of the strike zone is something we can examine. In this three-part gif of Oh’s pitch usage, observe how he attacks hitters up in the zone with his fastball, to his glove side in one very specific target area with the slider, and then to his arm side with the changeup against lefties.

Seung Hwan Oh Pitch Use

While Oh doesn’t sit in the upper 90’s like so many relief pitchers do nowadays, he doesn’t need to. He’s got a good fastball, a good slider, a changeup to mix things up against lefties, and exceptional control. That’s a recipe for success in any league.

With such a long and excellent track record in Korea and Japan along with this arsenal and impressive control, it’s curious that more teams weren’t in on Oh in the offseason. Perhaps it was his age. Maybe teams were concerned that the stuff wouldn’t play against major league hitters. Regardless of the reasons the 29 other teams passed, the Cardinals have once again outmaneuvered their competition, and Seung-hwan Oh has shown that his unrivaled nickname is completely justified.

"The Final Boss" indeed.

. . .

All statistics up to date through 8/27

Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrChrisAnders.