The KIA Tigers, who are battling for a mid-table spot in the 2023 KBO League, have a competitive lineup of left-handed pitchers in both the starting rotation and bullpen. The starting rotation includes Yang Hyun-jong, Lee Yi-ri, and Yoon Young-chul, while the bullpen includes Kim Dae-yu, Lee Jun-young, Kim Ki-hoon, and Choi Ji-min. Thanks to the mix of old and new left-handed pitchers, KIA has been able to maintain a nearly 5 percent winning percentage even in the absence of injured players. There are hopes that the likes of Na Sung-beom and Kim Do-young will return from rehab and make a run at the top of the standings.
In particular, the performance of left-hander Choi Ji-min, a second-year pro, has exceeded expectations. Choi graduated from Gangneung High School last year and joined KIA with the fifth pick of the second round. Last year, he appeared in six games for the first team and didn’t do much. However, after gaining experience playing for Geelong Korea in the Australian Baseball League (ABL) last winter, his game has improved dramatically this year.
This season, Choi has appeared in 20 games and pitched 24 innings, posting an impressive 2-0 record, 1 save, and 1 hold with a 1.13 ERA and a 0.474 FIP (on-base percentage + slugging percentage). His WHIP, which represents the average runs allowed per inning, is 0.92, which is “salty” enough to be just under 1.0. His command is also solid, with an average of 2.25 walks per nine innings, which is uncharacteristic for a second-year pitcher.
Choi Ji-min has been praised for being more intimidating than Jeong Jung-young, who has been an unreliable closer lately. There is a growing consensus that Choi Ji-min should take over the closer’s role to help the team win.
Last year, Choi’s average fastball velocity was 141.1 km/h, which wasn’t competitive, but this year, it’s up 4.2 km/h to 145.3 km/h, which is competitive. It’s the fastest fastball in the team’s left-handed bullpen. There is some optimism that if Choi continues his upward trend, he could make the Hangzhou Asian Games team and challenge for Rookie of the Year honors.
However, Choi’s frequent appearances have raised concerns about overuse injuries. If Choi continues her current pace of appearances and innings pitched, she will have appeared in 74 games and pitched 88.2 innings by the end of the season. That’s more than half of the 144 games in the regular season, and far more than the 80.2 innings pitched by Kim Min-soo (KT) last year, which was the most by a bullpen specialist. 안전놀이터
What’s more, Choi has already thrown 18.1 innings in 17 games for Geelong Korea last winter. Born in September 2003, Choi is still only 19 years old and physically unfinished, which puts a lot of pressure on her. Since he is neither a starter nor a reliever, he is far from systematic.
It’s hard to forget that KIA has a painful history of young bullpen pitchers ending their careers quietly after being overworked a few years ago. If the young pitchers had been systematically managed, KIA could have already established itself as a perennial contender in the fall baseball season without any ups and downs.
Choi Ji-min’s steady performance has the potential to define not only this season, but the future of the organization. It will be interesting to see if Ji-min Choi, who has established himself as KIA’s “reliable man,” can make the Asian Games team and win the Rookie of the Year award.