As we age, our strength declines. Neither your pitches nor your stamina will ever be the same. No superstar can be the best forever. That’s why it’s even more impressive when they fight back against the years.
In the 2023 KBO season, veterans in the twilight of their careers stand out more than ever.
Oh Seung-hwan (41-Samsung) is the last ’82-born’ pitcher left in the league. Kim Tae-gyun, Chung Geun-woo, Lee Dae-ho, and other key players of the 1982 golden generation have retired one after another. By this year, only three players remained, including Oh Seung-hwan and Choo Shin-soo and Kim Kang-min (SSG). Oh Seung-hwan is the only pitcher.안전놀이터
The decline in pitches is evident. He’s averaging just 143.2 kilometers per hour on his four-seam fastball this season. In his return to the KBO in 2020, he hit 146.2 mph. In his first major league season with St. Louis in 2016, he averaged 150 mph on his fastball.
He’s showing his age, too. In his prime, Oh struck out 14.5 batters per nine innings (2009). This season, he’s walking less than half, 6.63. His ERA is up to 3.79. These are not the numbers you’d expect from Samsung’s “closer.
Oh Seung-hwan made his first start as a professional against Daegu Kiwoom on March 3. It was the oldest start in KBO history. It was the coaching staff’s idea to get him out there and throw a lot of pitches to get his feel for the game, and his own will to give it everything he could. That day, he showed his veteran strength by pitching five innings of three-run ball despite some early struggles.
Since then, he has returned to the closer’s role and thrown one scoreless inning in all three of his appearances.
Seung-hwan Oh is not alone. Ko Hyo-joon (40) and Noh Kyung-eun (39) are the core of SSG’s bullpen, one of the most solid in the league. Ko and Noh were released by LG and Lotte, respectively, after the 2020 season. It looked like they were on their way to retirement, but they didn’t give up and went through tryouts to join SSG, where they’ve been a spark.
Kiwoom’s Im Chang-min (38) is also nearing the age of death in Korea, but he’s still playing well. Recently, Kiwoom head coach Hong Won-ki announced his intention to use him as a ninth inning closer.
Joining these veterans on the mound is Doosan’s Jang Won-jun (38). On March 23, he made his first start in 958 days against Jamsil Samsung and lasted five innings, allowing four runs. Jang added his first win in 1844 days, joining only three other active pitchers in the league with 130 wins, including Yang Hyun-jong (161) and Kim Kwang-hyun (152).
Jang utilized his two-seam fastball instead of his four-seam, which averaged up to 140 mph, and aggressively dug into the strike zone while facing back-to-back hitters. With injuries to foreign pitcher Dylan Pyle and homegrown ace Kwak Bin, Doosan head coach Lee Seung-yeop’s “gamble” in selecting Jang Won-jun paid off.
“My role is to pitch where the team wants me to pitch,” Jang said, “and I’ve always thought that if I realize my pitches aren’t working, I’ll quit without regret.” Like Oh Seung-hwan, Ko Hyo-joon, Noh Kyung-eun, and Lim Chang-min, Jang Won-jun still has more to prove in the first team.