St. Louis Cardinals: Closer Seung-Hwan Oh’s Troubling Start to 2017

Apr 11, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Seung-Hwan Oh (26) throws against the Washington Nationals during the eighth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 11, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Seung-Hwan Oh (26) throws against the Washington Nationals during the eighth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

The first three series of the year for the St. Louis Cardinals have been full of frustrations. Among these is closer Seung-Hwan Oh’s inauspicious start to the season on the mound.

Appearing in three games so far in the 2017 season, St. Louis Cardinals closer Seung-Hwan Oh has pitched 3.2 innings, allowed six hits, four runs (all earned), one walk, hit two batters, served up two home runs, and blown his only save opportunity. His ERA stands at 12.27, opposing batters are hitting .353 against him, and his WHIP is a ghastly 1.91.

Obviously, it’s early in the year: week two. Will Oh be this bad all season? Probably not. But is this start troubling nevertheless? Of course it is. It all began when the Final Boss was summoned for a five-out save against the Chicago Cubs on Opening Night. He got through the eighth, but allowed a three-run home run to Willson Contreras in the ninth inning that tied the game.

He threw thirty-eight pitches in that outing, and didn’t make it back into a game until the following Sunday against the Cincinnati Reds seven days later. This time, he surrendered two hits and a walk, although a solo home run hit by Joey Votto was the only run scored against Oh.

On Tuesday night, he made his third appearance of the season. He got the first two batters of the inning out, but once again, the quick inning eluded him. He allowed back-to-back doubles to the Washington Nationals’ 3- and 4-hitters: Bryce Harper, and Daniel Murphy.

Oh has yet to go without being scored upon in an outing this season. All three teams he’s faced so far feature solid lineups, the Cubs and Nationals especially.

In 2016, Cubs batters hit .237 with two home runs against Oh. Interestingly enough, Contreras’ home run on Opening Night was actually the second he’s hit in his career against the St. Louis closer. He hit his first last season. Kris Bryant was the other Cub to take Oh deep in 2016.

The Reds hit Oh at a .286 rate last season. Votto was 1-for-3 against him before his home run Sunday. Scott Schebler was the only Reds batter to hit a long ball against the 34-year-old rookie in 2016.

The Nationals didn’t see as much of Oh last season. Washington hitters went 4-for-16 (.250) against the Final Boss in 2016.

Overall, Oh was stingy against opposing offenses in his first season in Major League Baseball. Hitters ended up hitting just .190 against him over the entire season. Since last year the Cubs hit forty-seven points higher than the average, the Reds ninety-six points higher, and the Nats sixty points higher. Oh’s early season performance this year could be attributed to the opposition’s familiarity with him as a pitcher.

That shouldn’t necessarily ease any concerns, though. The Cardinals have sixteen more games this season against the Cubs and Reds each. Washington will visit St. Louis for a three-game series at the beginning of July.

As was mentioned at the top, Oh’s already allowed four runs, two home runs, and hit two batters through April 11. He didn’t allow his fourth run of the 2016 season until May 25. He didn’t allow his second home run until July 22. And he didn’t hit his second batter until July 24.

It’s still April, but if Oh’s going to be the pitcher he was a year ago, he’s already got some catching up to do.

Of course, the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen as a whole has been hideous to begin the year. Not all of that falls on the shoulders of Oh. The only pitchers who haven’t allowed a run so far are Matt Bowman and Trevor Rosenthal.

If Oh continues to struggle, it will be interesting to see what that might mean for Rosenthal, who began last season as the Cardinals’ closer before Oh supplanted him. In his first appearance of the season, he struck out the side in order on fourteen pitches. He featured a fastball that reached triple digits and a breaking ball that froze Anthony Rendon for strike three.

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Amid a bullpen in disarray, it appears Rosenthal will be thrown into high-leverage situations right away. Given the struggles of projected late-inning relievers Kevin Siegrist and Brett Cecil, Rosenthal may well be Mike Matheny‘s best option to hold eighth inning leads for the time being.

That is, if such an opportunity even presents itself. Oh hasn’t received a save opportunity since Opening Night. Aside from Oh’s eighth-inning cameo that same night, the Cardinals have yet to need a reliever to hold down an eighth-inning lead of three-or-fewer runs.

It may also be noteworthy that Oh’s participation in the World Baseball Classic with Team Korea interrupted his Spring Training with the Cardinals. However, he got plenty of work in his team’s three games.

It’s unlikely that Oh’s slow start is linked to his participation in the WBC, especially since he didn’t idle on the bench like Cardinals’ closer Mitchell Boggs did in 2013 when representing Team USA in the Classic. Boggs struggled out of the gate that season and Edward Mujica eventually took over the ninth-inning role for St. Louis.

It may only be his second year in the big leagues, but Oh’s a veteran pitcher. Hopefully he’ll turn things around this season, even though the league now has a year of exposure to his pitching – something it didn’t have a year ago.

Next: Takeaways From the Opening Series

Oh is no where near being removed from the closer’s role this early in the season. He’s had only one opportunity. Perhaps all he needs is a high-leverage chance to close out a ballgame for the Cardinals to reassert his dominance on the mound. And perhaps that’s also what the Cardinals need to begin a winning streak.