Bullish on the pen, even complete games a rarity

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Bullish on the pen, even complete games a rarity


Sun Dong-yeol of Haitai Tigers, left, and the late Choi Dong-won of the Lotte Giants were two pitchers who were capable working into the late innings of a game. [JoongAng Ilbo, Ilgan Sports]

When Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers flirted with a perfect game and a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds earlier this week, Korean baseball fans were beside themselves with excitement.

Maybe that’s because there has never been a perfect game in the 33-year history of the KBO and no-hitters are few and far between. The last no-hitter in the KBO was by Song Jin-woo, now the Hanwha Eagles pitching coach, against the Haitai Tigers, now the Kia Tigers, on May 18, 2000.

Never mind the lack of mound masterpieces, there have been no shutouts recorded so far this season in the KBO and only two complete games - by Rick VandenHurk of the Samsung Lions and Dustin Nippert of the Doosan Bears.

Korean fans often nickname top KBO players “monsters,” an honor accorded to only few players including Ryu Hyun-jin, former Eagles and Kim Kwang-hyun, of the SK Wyverns, since 2000.

In 2006, at the age of 19, Ryu became the first KBO pitcher to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards with a record of 18-6 and seven complete games, including a shutout, and a 2.23 ERA. He struck out 204 hitters in 201.2 innings.

In 2008, 20-year-old Kim was named KBO’s MVP after he posted a record of 16-4 with two complete games, including a shutout, and a 2.39 ERA. He struck out 150 in 162 innings.

This season, the KBO is not without some striking young prospects - 22-year-old Yoo Chang-sik of the Eagles (2-1/3.00 ERA) and 19-year-old Lim Ji-seob (1-2/6.75 ERA) - but they have a way to go to earn the “monster” moniker.

The pressure is especially intense on Yoo, who pitches for Ryu’s old team and collected a 700 million won ($683,900) signing bonus when he was drafted by the Eagles in 2011. It is the second-largest amount ever in the KBO after Han Ki-joo of the Kia Tigers got 1 billion won in 2006.

But the question is whether prospects like Yoo can potentially be more than just a decent pitcher who throws five or six innings per game these days.

“A complete game has become something only a few top pitchers can accomplish lately for sure,” says analyst Cha Myung-suk. “In a league like the KBO, where there are plenty of hitters who focus more on making good contact than on big swings, pitchers have to throw more pitches. And because managers are under a lot of pressure - much more than in the past - to make it to the postseason, they don’t hesitate to replace starters even in early innings.”

It has only been about a decade since KBO clubs started considering the bullpen a necessity in order to field a competitive team.

Previously, many clubs relied on their one or two top starters until the very late innings, therefore it wasn’t all that surprising to pitchers like Kia Tigers Manager Sun Dong-yeol, who played for the Haitai Tigers from 1985 to 1995 (career stats of 146-40 with 132 saves, a 1.20 ERA, 68 complete games, 29 shutouts and one no-hitter, in 1989) or Choi Dong-won, who died of colorectal cancer in 2011 and played for the Lotte Giants and Samsung Lions from 1983 to 1990 (103-74 with 26 saves, a 2.46 ERA, 81 complete games and 15 shutouts), standing on the mound late in games.

But after the Lions and SK Wyverns dominated the league over the past decade with their bullpens and flexibility with pitchers shifting between the pen and starting rotation, more teams have followed suit.

Since the KBO started tracking holds (HDs) as an official record in 2000 season, the first reliever to reach 100 HDs was lefty Ryu Taek-hyun of the Twins in 2009. Five others have done it since then.

“Under the trend, managers have hesitated to test young pitchers in their rotation and were often forced to shift their roles in the middle of the season,” Cha says. “The reason Ryu and Kim were able to become top starting pitchers who can go deep into a game was because they spent enough time in the rotation.”

BY KWON SANG-SOO [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]

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