After Monday’s late inning collapse headlined by Seung-hwan Oh blowing his third save of the season against the Arizona Diamondbacks, it’s time to look at what has plagued the St. Louis Cardinals closer this season.
Last year in his first season with the St. Louis Cardinals, Seung-hwan Oh was almost unhittable. The Stone Buddha was baffling hitters with a wipe-out slider and a deceiving fastball. Hitters were unfamiliar with his delivery and pitching tactics, but now with a season under his belt, the closer-of-old has regressed mightily.
To make his struggles only more apparent, Oh has already given up more home runs than last year in forty-three less innings. His ERA (3.75) is up two runs and his FIP (fielding independent pitching) is nearing a three run increase (4.53) from last year. His batting average against is up to .265 compared to .188 in 2016. The former Korean League closer has lost his dominance St. Louis Cardinals’ fans once knew.
What makes matters worse, is the other bullpen ‘weapons’, like Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and so on, have also been ineffective. The St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen has been nothing short of a nightmare this season. Brett Cecil may be regaining his confidence. Oh has been dominant over certain stretches, but the bullpen has been mostly lackluster. That may even be an understatement.
While watching Seung-hwan Oh, and after looking at his full body of work, three things stood out to me:
- He’s falling behind in counts and not working ahead.
- His slider is not near as effective as last year.
- He struggles to get left-handed hitters out.
Overall, hitters are more comfortable in the batter’s box against Oh, and he’s not getting as many swing and misses as last year.
1. Oh continues to work behind in counts
Last year, Oh burst onto the scene pumping strikes, while not being phased by much of anything. The moment never seemed to big, for a guy with loads of international experience. He always wanted the ball. He likely exceeded expectations for most Cardinals fans, as he was a dangerous weapon for the St. Louis Cardinals. Challenging hitters in the zone was his go-to, except he has veered from that this season.
His first pitch strike percentage is down 5.5% from last year and sits at 61%, which is above the league average of 60.3%. It’s good that he’s better than the average closer, but it’s not good enough for a bullpen arm that isn’t your typical power pitcher. For someone who throws a 93 MPH fastball 60.8% of the time, it is extra important to work ahead and set up his secondary pitches.
Working ahead, for any pitcher, puts more pressure on the hitter and allows the pitcher to throw chase pitches. Oh has not had this luxury too often this year, and it has shown. After Oh falls behind in the count, batters are hitting .262 with a OBP of .368. For this same scenario in 2016, batters only hit .200.
Oh hasn’t been able to get outs at ease, like last year. His inability to get out of jams and shut the door comes down to his lack of a put-away pitch.
2. What happened to Oh’s slider?
Since coming to the league, Oh has been primarily a two-pitch pitcher (fastball and slider) with an occasional change-up. This season, his fastball usage is at 61%, slider at 28.6% and change-up at 7.9%. Personally, I think he uses his mediocre fastball too much, but it’s actually one of this best pitches. He can get away with average velocity with superior location.
Batters are hitting .296 off Oh’s slider this year compared to only .164 in 2016. Times have changed, and batters aren’t chasing his slider outside the zone as much. More importantly, hitters aren’t whiffing at his slider either. Oh’s Z-contact percentage, which is the percentage batters swing and make contact with pitches inside the zone, increased to 86.3%. His Z-contact percentage in 2016 was 70.8.
Oh’s swing-and-miss slider from 2016 has turned into a meatball slider this season. According to Fangraphs, Oh had 9.0 wSL (slider runs above average) in 2016, which was obviously a valuable pitch. This year, however, Oh has a -3.8 wSL. A drastic change for Oh who used his slider at any time during an at-bat.
Oh’s slider isn’t missing as many bats this year, and instead it’s getting hit hard.
Although his slider has been relatively ineffective, Oh must continue to use it throughout at-bats. It somewhat keeps hitters off-balance. If he can turn that pitch around I think Oh is one step closer to returning to dominance.
3. Oh’s inability to get left-handed hitters out
So far this season lefties are hitting .348 in seventy-five chances against Oh, with five of the six home runs from this side of the plate.
Conversely, righties are hitting .192 against Oh in eighty-four at-bats. Incredibly ugly splits for a pitcher closes out games.
Hitters know his slider isn’t the same pitch as last year and his fastball doesn’t have blow-by ability. Basically what it comes down to is that hitters are putting together smarter at-bats against Oh.
Whether it’s using his change-up more against lefties or trying a different pitch sequence, something has to be done.
Otherwise, lefties cill continue to rake against Oh. As a closer, pitchers must get both lefties and righties out in any situation. Unfortunately, he has struggled to do that.
His meatball slider and lack of confidence and success was on display against David Peralta Monday night at Chase Field:
What looked like an 86 MPH hanging slider, on the outside part of the plate, was easily deposited over the left field fence. It was another punch to the gut for St. Louis Cardinals’ fans. After leading the whole game, Oh was unable to put away, yep you guessed it, a left-handed hitter.
Those are a few flaws hurting Oh this season. Other things like pitch velocity and location could also be contributing factors, but anyway you look at it, Oh is a much different pitcher than last year. If the St. Louis Cardinals want to climb the weak National League Central, he has to return to the Final Boss Cardinals’ fans are accustomed to.
I believe Seung-hwan Oh has what it takes to return to dominance. Let me know your take in the comments below or on Twitter. Thanks for reading!