Technically a rookie in Major League Baseball at the age of 34 despite breaking into the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) back in 2005, relief pitcher Seung-hwan Oh has been nothing short of a lifesaver for the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals.
The right-hander has forged an ERA of 1.79 to go with a 5-3 record and 18 saves in 21 opportunities. Most recently, Oh picked up a win and a save in the Cardinals’ important Saturday and Sunday wins in San Francisco.
Among National League closers with at least a dozen saves, only Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon have lower ERAs than Oh.
Despite 357 career saves over nine seasons in Korea and two more while pitching in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan, the ease or difficulty of Oh’s transition to the US was unclear last winter.
In January, the Cardinals signed Oh to a two-year contract, with the second year vesting when he made his 30th appearance this season. In the deal, Oh did not receive closer’s money, with a base salary of $2.5 million this season and $2.75 million next.
Things changed when prior closer Trevor Rosenthal lost his mojo and then went on the disabled list. Oh took over as St. Louis’ ninth-inning man on June 26 and hasn’t looked back.
With dual nicknames of The Final Boss and Stone Buddha, Oh is often praised on team game broadcasts for his tenaciousness, said to want to take the ball every single day.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is apparently taking that attitude to heart. Oh is on pace to appear in a team-high 78 games for pitchers this season, with his current number of appearances at 72. That is just four off a share of the National League lead.
The reality is that Oh has recently moved into uncharted territory.
At age 34, he is playing in his longest season as a professional. The number of regular-season games on the KBO and NPB schedules are 144 and 146, respectively, closer to 140-game US minor league seasons than MLB’s more grueling 162.
In his first season in MLB, Oh has already broken his career high in games pitched. His prior high water mark of 64 was set in 2014 during his initial season in Japan.
Putting aside Oh’s two partial seasons due to injury, in 2008 and 2009, the right-hander appeared in average of 58 games per year over his nine full seasons as a professional.
In terms of innings pitched, Oh’s pace for 81 1/3 innings - and even his current mark of 75 1/3 innings - are not new personal highs, though. As a rookie and a second-year player, the reliever was used in a multiple innings role, averaging 89 innings in 2005 and 2006, his ages 22 and 23 seasons.
However, over his most recent nine years, Oh never pitched as many as 70 innings again, even in his busiest years in Japan – that is, until now.
So in conclusion, here in 2016, Oh has already set a new personal high in games pitched and has already thrown more innings in any season over his last decade.
Is that something one can feel good about, especially given his age and the accumulated miles on his right arm?
In all fairness, his only indication of injury to date was a groin problem that sidelined him for a week recently. There is no reason to believe that is fatigue- or workload-related.
Of the seven members of St. Louis’ season-opening bullpen, Oh joins fellow rookie Matt Bowman and veteran Jonathan Broxton as the only ones to have avoided the disabled list this season.
As younger Cardinals relievers have crumbled around Oh this season, how could one not be at least a little nervous, given his importance to this team? As viewers saw Monday night, the next man up, Kevin Siegrist, is far from automatic.
Oh At a Glance
|162-game pace||2016||78||80 1/3|
|Previous high||2015||69 1/3|
|Avg full season||2007-15||57||60 1/3|
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