Oh Seung-hwan (Yonhap News)
Oh Seung-hwan, a relief pitcher for the Samsung Lions of South Korea’s top professional baseball league, is garnering attention from U.S. pro baseball clubs.
Several Major League Baseball scouts attended the Lions game against the Nexen Heroes at Seoul’s Mokdong Stadium on Wednesday, reportedly to watch Oh play. The game ended in a draw after 12 innings.
Oh made a strong impression in front of the scouts, appearing at the bottom of the 11th inning to shut out four batters, striking out one without allowing hits or walks.
According to a South Korean daily, officials from the MLB and Japanese pro teams “seemed to be deeply impressed” by Oh’s fastball that reached a maximum speed of 155 km (96.3 miles) per hour.
Widely considered one of the top relief pitchers in Korea, Oh is famous for his fastballs as well as his poker-straight game face, which has earned him the nickname Dol-bucheo (Stone Buddha).
As Samsung’s key closer, Oh is usually entrusted with the task of shutting teams down late in the game. He is currently recording 12 saves with a 0.50 ERA in 18 innings.
Local experts said that the 31-year-old may try to play in the MLB soon. Oh’s contract with the Lions expires after the 2013 season and given his age, this may be the prime time for him to attempt the jump into the big league.
In the past, U.S. teams rarely found Korean professional players appealing. Compared to American players, Korean baseball players lacked power and athleticism.
Because of this perception, MLB scouts often looked at college or high school prospects but rarely pro players. From Park Chan-ho, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to Choo Shin-soo of the Cincinnati Reds, every big-shot MLB player of Korean descent started their pro careers in the U.S.
A change in trend was hinted when the Dodgers signed Ryu Hyun-jin in December 2012. Ryu, the first player ever to make the jump from the Korean Baseball Organization to the MLB, is considered one of the top rookies in the National League, recording six wins with little over a quarter of the season played.
Boosted by Ryu’s success, more American clubs seem to be turning their eyes to South Korea.
Oh, however, remains cautious on talks about his future. Prior to the post-game interview on Wednesday, Oh told his team that he will not answer any questions related to the MLB.
“Oh is not yet a free agent and he needs to get his team’s consent to sign with an MLB team, so he is prudent about his comments,” said an official from the Samsung Lions.
Under KBO regulations, a player must play at least seven years in the KBO and get consent from his team to play in a foreign league. College players like Oh must play eight full seasons to qualify.
Oh is currently playing his eighth full season.
By Yoon Min-sik