Jays from the Couch examines the turnaround of Toronto Blue Jays reliever Seung-hwan Oh
Seunghwan Oh was among the last signings for the Blue Jays this winter, inking a one-year/$2 million deal in late February. The deal includes a $2.5 million team option for 2019 (with a $200,000 buyout) that becomes a vesting option if Oh pitches in 70 games. At this point, there is little doubt that Oh will be a member of the Blue Jays in 2019—not only has he been fantastic, he’s on pace to pitch in about 75 games.
Oh was the classic buy-low signing. At the time, I highlighted his strong potential for a bounce-back season. While Oh was elite in 2016, he was mediocre in 2017. His strikeout rate fell by more than a third, while the contact he gave up was much more dangerous—homers and barrels were a particular problem for him. He also dealt with bad batted ball luck.
The logic supporting Oh’s signing was obvious. If he was only able to replicate his 2017 performance, the Jays were still getting an average-ish reliever for low cost and term. If he could make some improvements, even better. However, if he could replicate his 2016 performance, Oh would likely be the best free-agent relief signing of 2018.
Without context, his performance during the first week of the 2018 season was worrisome. His strikeout rate fell even further, while he was giving up homers at an even higher rate than 2017. The result was a bloated FIP of 5.51. The only thing keeping his ERA at a modest level (3.86) was an unsustainable 90.9% strand rate.
But context is key. Not only was Oh a late-winter signing, he had work permit issues that prevented him from getting into Spring Training action until March 21st. In total, he faced 10 Spring Training batters—in comparison, his fellow Blue Jay relievers faced around 30 to 40 batters in spring. By the end of the first week of April, Oh had finally faced 30 batters as a Blue Jay.
April 8th, 2018. That’s where this post’s analysis begins. A quick aside: As I’ve gotten more experienced analyzing baseball stats, I’ve tried harder and harder to avoid cherry-picking stats/time frames to fit my narrative. At this point, I’ll only do so if there is a great deal of justification for it. Given Oh’s lack of spring, I feel justified in starting the clock on his 2018 season on April 8th.
Over the last 14 games (53 batters faced), Oh has maintained a stellar 0.64 ERA. That is ninth-best in the majors among 196 relievers who faced at least 40 batters since April 8th. He’s joined by his fellow free-agent signings Tyler Clippard (0.53 ERA, fifth) and John Axford (1.04 ERA, 15th)—I examined their suitability for the interim closer role last week. Can you believe that the Jays are paying them a total of $5 million this season?
Now, while ERA is great at telling us what happened, it isn’t a good guide of what will happen. Given that Oh has a strand rate of 100%, it is highly unlikely that he will maintain his sub-1.00 ERA over the next 14 games. So, instead, let’s look at his performance via numbers less affected by small sample sizes. Oh’s FIP and xwOBA over the last five and a half weeks indicate just how well his overall performance has been, both ranking among the league’s very best and in line with 2016 levels.
Two key components of both stats are a pitcher’s walk and strikeout rates. Oh’s walk rate has actually been extremely consistent over his MLB career—even through his struggles, he managed to post solid marks in 2017 (5.7%) and the first week of 2018 (4.3%). On the other hand, his strikeout rate shrunk in 2017 (20.4%) and very early-2018 (17.4%). Over the last 14 games, he’s managed to rebound, with a strikeout rate once more above the 30% mark and among the league leaders. His strong strikeout and walk rates have combined for an elite strikeout-to-walk ratio, just like 2016.
He’s also generated a lot of weak contact, though his issues with barrels and homers haven’t completely evaporated. Let’s start with the bad (or, more accurately, the less good): Oh has been roughly average at limiting homers and barrels since April 8th. First off, average here still works, especially with such strong strikeout and walk rates. More importantly, those marks are big improvements over 2017 (1.5 HR/9, 4.9% barrel rate) and very early-2018 (1.9 HR/9, 4.3% barrel rate).
If we expand our focus beyond barrels, Oh’s ability to generate weak contact becomes quite evident. Since April 8th, Oh ranks in the Top 10 among relievers in terms of his ability to limit base-hits (xBA on batted balls) and extra base-hits (xwOBA on batted balls). In terms of both stats, Oh is producing one of the best 14-game stretches of his career.
Ultimately, all we can say at this point is that Seung-hwan Oh has pitched very well over the last 14 games. He’s struck out nearly a third of batters, walked very few of them and has generated some very weak contact. Will he do this for the rest of 2018? Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an excellent season is a lot higher now that he’s shown up, shaken off the cob webs and pitched like an elite reliever for five weeks.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of: Johnny Peacock
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.