DUNEDIN, Fla. – As they do, the Toronto Blue Jays reached out to a variety of free agent relievers this offseason as the club searched for optimal ways to fill holes in its bullpen. One of those relievers was 35-year-old Korean right-hander Seung-hwan Oh.
After some exploratory discussions with the Blue Jays, Oh found an offer he liked better from the Texas Rangers, agreeing to a one-year, $2.75-million deal. But an issue the Rangers discovered during Oh’s physical changed their offer, which, in turn, changed Oh’s interest in signing with Texas.
As that pact fell apart, the Blue Jays stepped in, agreeing with Oh on a deal that will pay him $1.75 million in 2018, with a $2.5-million club option for 2019 (with a $250,000 buyout) that will automatically vest if Oh makes 70 appearances. The Blue Jays conducted their own physical with Oh Monday in Dunedin, and clearly didn’t encounter anything that would shy them away from signing the veteran.
“We feel really good about our process and about the information that we had prior to Texas and after Texas coming out,” said Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. “Our due diligence suggests that with his emphasis on strength and conditioning, his emphasis on how he takes care of himself, that he should be able to help us.”
For his part, Oh reported to Blue Jays camp on Tuesday feeling like himself. He says he’s been throwing bullpens without issue throughout the winter, and he’s scheduled to throw another on Wednesday. His spring training debut with his new team should come sometime shortly after that.
“It was good to see teammates and a lot of the coaching staff. The teammates were very welcoming to me here. I’m very happy to be here,” Oh said through his translator, Eugene Koo. “The way the Blue Jays processed everything quickly, it motived me. I’m ready to go now.”
Armed with a 93-mph fastball, an 86-mph slider, and a seldom-used 84-mph change-up, Oh immediately joins the back-end of the Blue Jays bullpen, which was in need of reinforcement after the offseason departure of Dominic Leone, who threw 70.1 innings for the club in 2017.
Oh served as a set-up man and closer for the Cardinals, throwing 123.1 of his 139 innings in the seventh, eighth and ninth – primarily when St. Louis had a lead. The Blue Jays already have a pretty good closer in Roberto Osuna, but Oh is expected to take over a set-up role alongside Ryan Tepera.
“He’s here to pitch some valuable innings, I know that,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “We’ve got our guys, our returners here – we know what they can do and they’ve been very good for us, but you bring in a guy like Oh for a reason. He’s had some success in certain roles. So, he’s just going to add to that.”
After logging 11 strong seasons in Korea and Japan, Oh came to MLB in 2016 as a 33-year-old and pitched to a 1.92 ERA with 11.6 K/9 over 79.2 innings with St. Louis, but he took a step back in 2017, posting a 4.10 ERA with 8.2 K/9 in 59.1 innings.
Oh’s velocity and pitch usage remained consistent over the two seasons, and he actually allowed less hard contact in 2017 than he did in 2016. He simply missed fewer bats – particularly with his slider – as his swinging strike rate dropped from 18 per cent in 2016 to 12.9 per cent in 2017.
That inflated his contact rate, which increased by 10 per cent. And the fact that only 28.7 per cent of that contact came via groundball – Oh’s groundball rate was 40 per cent the year prior – certainly didn’t help, either.
Of course, the league had more extensive video and scouting reports on Oh following his first season in the majors, which likely contributed to hitters’ success against him. Oh’s batting average on balls in play also climbed from .270 to .319, which suggests luck wasn’t always on his side.
For his part, Oh didn’t get into specifics about what changed for him from 2016 to 2017, saying only that he expects to be better this season.
“No big problem, really. Some things didn’t work out last season,” Oh said. “It’s just one of those seasons where I had a bad year. I’m going to make it up this year.”
Atkins says the Blue Jays have looked closely at Oh’s performance not only over the last two seasons, but during his time overseas. The Blue Jays aren’t necessarily expecting Oh to return to his 2016 form, but certainly see opportunity for him to improve on 2017.
“We felt like he was a good fit for us,” Atkins said. “If he’s the guy – anywhere even near – that he was in 2016, we’ll be in very good shape with our bullpen. Is it somewhere between [2016 and 2017?] That would be just fine with us. He’s still an effective major-league pitcher.”
When Oh heads north with the Blue Jays later this month, it’ll be his first time in Canada. But the native of Jeongeup, South Korea, who pitched nine professional seasons at home before going abroad, says he’s looking forward to it.
“I’ve heard that there’s a lot of Korean population in the city. So, I’m really excited for that,” he said. “And all the teammates and everyone I know, they’re saying only good stuff about Toronto. How it’s a beautiful city, and a wonderful city to live in. I’m really excited to get there.”