Lotte Giants aiming to improve poor pitchingAt the club’s offseason training camp in Kagoshima, Japan, Busan Lotte Giants manager Yang Seung-ho offered up a little incentive to the members of his bullpen. Yang, who was hired to replace outgoing manager Jerry Royster at the end of last season, told his relief pitchers that his watch could be theirs if they do what only one person on the team has ever done.
“I will give this watch to the pitcher who notches 30 saves this season,” Yang said.
Yang’s method of motivation might be unconventional, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The Giants managed a league-low 21 saves last year. Despite boasting the best batting order in the KBO last season, the Giants finished fourth overall in the league standings, largely in part to their weak bullpen.
And the biggest weakness was the lack of a viable closer.
The Giants tried almost everyone at the position, with eight pitchers notching at least one save and Kim Kyung-wan leading the team with just seven saves.
So Yang has been particularly focused in Japan on finding a pitcher who can serve as a regular closer.
Veteran pitcher Kim Sa-yool looks to be in the lead at the team’s offseason training camp to take over the closer role. Kim Soo-wan, Bae Jang-ho and Oh Soo-ho have impressed early in the training camp, but Kim Sa-yool has stood out from the rest of the pack.
Kim had a subpar season last year while trying to bounce back from a knee injury. But because his knee problems bothered his lower body, Kim built up arm strength instead.
“The angle of his release point and his mechanics have improved considerably since last season,” said Giants pitching coach Yoon Hyung-bae.
Yang is still evaluating his pitchers and is considering utilizing a two-closer platoon and setup man until someone establishes himself as the team’s undisputed closer.
Ko Won-joon, who joined the Giants from the Seoul Nexen Heroes last season, will in all likelihood be utilized in a closer or setup man.
But Ko did not seem to be impressed by his manager’s offer.
“Earning 30 saves in a season as a closer is the equivalent to earning 15 wins in a season as a starting pitcher,” said Ko. “Receiving a wrist watch as a reward seems a bit small for such a big feat.”
As team officials tell it, Ko has the mental makeup and the confidence of a closer. Ko, however, has not been performing to his potential at training camp, partly because he had been suffering from back spasms early on in camp. He did not even pitch with batters in the box until Monday.
“The velocity and control of his pitches and timing of his fastballs and curve balls are like that of a veteran pitcher in his 30s,” said Yang.
If history is any guide, manager Yang will continue to keep his watch come season-end.
Since the inaugural KBO season in 1982, Park Dong-hee - who earned 31 saves in 1994 - is the only Giants closer to have ever reached the 30-save mark in a single season. And only four other pitchers have managed to notch 20 or more saves in team history.
“If I end up giving up my wrist watch, we will likely win the Korean Series,” said Yang.
By Choi Min-kyu [email@example.com]