In my prior six years of selecting the Relief Pitcher of the Year on the St. Louis Cardinals, six different players had been chosen. Year seven here in 2016 brought the same result – a new and unexpected honoree.
Back in spring training, no one, including me, could have guessed that a little-known Korean who spent the prior two years in Japan would be that person.
Yet, not only was Seung-hwan Oh the top reliever on the club, his ability to seamlessly take over the closer’s job when Trevor Rosenthal faltered may have been the single most important factor in the Cardinals’ ability to hold their ground in the National League Wild Card race until its final hours.
Technically a rookie in Major League Baseball at the age of 34 despite breaking into the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) back in 2005, Oh was nothing short of a lifesaver for the Cardinals.
The right-hander forged an ERA of 1.92 to go with a 6-3 record, 19 saves in 22 opportunities and a strikeouts per nine innings mark of 11.6. Among the 43 National League relievers with at least two saves, only Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon had 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 Rosenthal lost his mojo and then went on the disabled list. Oh took over as St. Louis’ ninth-inning man on June 26 and did not look back. Over the remainder of the season since taking over from Rosenthal – his first save was on July 2nd – Oh’s ERA was 2.27. His WHIP was 0.96 and his strikeout rate held strong at 11.3 per nine.
With dual nicknames of The Final Boss and Stone Buddha, Oh was often praised on team game broadcasts for his tenaciousness, said to want to take the ball every single day. In fact, Oh appeared in a team-high 76 games for pitchers this season, just six off a share of the National League lead.
Among Cardinals relievers, Oh led the way in ERA, fielding independent pitching (FIP), wins above replacement (WAR), saves and save success rate. In his first half role as setup man, Oh logged 14 holds.
Following the season, Oh received one third-place vote in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting, placing him in a tie for sixth with two others.
Earlier this winter, when some Cardinals fans and writers were wishing the club would pursue top free agent closers Jansen and Chapman, I disagreed. Instead, I urged them to recognize the elite closer the team already has in Oh. Further, if I had the team’s investment decision, I explained why I would spend for 2017 on offense, rather than pitching.
I went on to recommend the Cardinals approach Oh this off-season with an extension offer to keep him with the club beyond 2017. At least one beat reporter since suggested that the Oh camp is not interested, instead planning to test the free agent market in the fall.
However, it appears that door is not closed. Just one week ago, a Korean journalist tweeted this:
“According to Oh’s agent, #Cardinals in recent days have expressed a willingness to extend his contract.”
Either way, the Cardinals appear to be set with their ninth-inning duties for 2017 after Oh’s unexpectedly strong and valuable showing in 2016.
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