While negotiations between the MLB Player’s Union and the owners of the big-league clubs drag on, the Korean Baseball Organization has begun its season, with a game per day broadcasted on ESPN, helping to fill our need for baseball.
Last night, the Kia Tigers defeated the Lotte Giants 7–3, behind a strong offensive effort against Giants’ starter Noh Kyung-eun and a good outing from starting pitcher Aaron Brooks. Brooks, a 30-year old former MLB pitcher with 170 + innings of experience, outdueled his 36-year old opponent Noh, keeping the Giants’ lineup quiet over 6 innings.
Noh Kyung-eun struggled against the Tigers, allowing 6 runs in 5+ innings of work. It was an unfortunate continuation of his way his season has unfolded, with a 5.57 ERA. He primarily struggled against left-handed hitters, allowing 2 of his 3 home runs to lefties Preston Tucker and Choi Hyoung-woo.
Other than that, Noh struggled to throw consistent strikes, only putting the ball in the strike zone about 61% of the time, which is a lower rate than you’d like to see. If he was a swing and miss guy, getting a lot of chase swings out of the zone, that number would be acceptable, but that’s not Noh’s game, only inducing 6 whiffs (14% of his swings) and 1 strikeout over 21 batters faced. However, those numbers are somewhat in line with his season averages of 6.00 K/9 and 3.00 BB/9. But his pitch arsenal and average velocities reveal some more insights into how Noh prefers to try and pitch (hint: it’s not by striking guys out).
Noh touched 90 mph at the max on his fastball once but mostly lived around 87 mph. His slider sat low 80s, at about 82/83 mph, with his curveball hovering around 73 mph. But he also threw a strange-looking pitch at the end of the spectrum around 60 mph that looked like a strange combination of a curveball and knuckleball gone wrong. Whatever it was exactly, it didn’t really work and Noh only threw it a couple of times. But all of this indicates that Noh survives with trickery and deception, rather than blowing the ball by opposing hitters.
However, part of the problem with relying on deception and breaking balls is the small margin for error, which left-handed hitters seem to be exploiting this season against Noh. The home run that Preston Tucker hit was a fastball that stayed elevated over the middle of the plate. Hyoung-woo Choi’s home run in the 6th inning came on a breaking ball that got hung over the middle of the plate. Given Noh’s BABIP of 0.347 this season, which is below average, it appears that he’s been allowing more and more hard contact, even though he does have an HR/9 of 0.43 which is about average.
Of course, it doesn’t help when he’s allowing hard-hit balls and those being hit in the air, which is what happened against the Tigers. Noh had a GO/FO ratio of 1.00, thanks to his 7 ground outs and 7 fly outs, at least two of which (by LHH) traveled to the warning track.
Noh’s counterpart for the Tigers, Aaron Brooks had a much more successful game and is a drastically different pitcher than Noh.
First and foremost, Brooks throws hard, as most of the former MLB guys in the KBO do. With both his sinker and 4-seam fastball, Brooks averaged about 92 mph, touching 94, all of which is faster than what Noh’s max fastball velocity was. Brooks’ secondary pitches, primarily his slider, but his changeup as well, averaged about 84–85 mph each, with distinct breaking patterns towards one side of the batter’s box or another.
It’s a fascinating combination of pitches that Brooks uses. His primary fastball is his sinker at 92 mph, which he threw around 36% of the time against the Giants. It has a little bit of arm side run, going inside against right-handed hitters with a surprising amount of drop, which is where he threw it a lot. His second pitch is his slider, at about 84 mph, which breaks away from RHH and in towards lefties. His changeup plays off of both pitches pretty well, with arm side run; Brooks primarily located it inside and lower to RHH, acting as a mirror of his slider. The 4-seam is a pretty typical fastball, coming in at 92 mph, and straight, which contrasts it against the sinker. He threw the four-seamer up and away a little more to RHH as a chase pitch, but only used it about 13% of the time.
As he’s transitioned to the KBO, Brooks’ swing and miss numbers have jumped. In MLB play, he had a career K/9 of 6.49 with a swinging strike rate (Whiff Rate) of 7.9%. Thus far in 2020, Brooks has a K/9 of 7.47 and had a Whiff rate of 26% against the Giants.
A lot of those swings and misses came on his slider, which is clearly his wipeout pitch, even dating back to his time in the majors. In 2019, his slider had an xwOBA of 0.237 with a Whiff rate of 33.7%. The unique part of this pitch, and what I noticed against the Giants, is how little horizontal movement his slider has. According to Baseball Savant data from Statcast, in 2019, Brooks’ slider had just 1 inch of horizontal movement away from RHH where the MLB average is about 6 inches of horizontal movement. In this case, the lack of movement and differentiation from the norm is what is key to the success of Brooks’ slider.
The that all of his pitches have similar movement profiles out of his hand really augments his ability to throw strikes, as he did 71% of the time against the Giants with a 67% first-pitch strike rate vs Noh’s 61% rate. It’s a healthy mix of deception and inducing weak contact around the edges of the zone; Brooks had a GO/FO ratio of 6.00 last night, inducing 12 groundouts to just 2 flyouts. Limiting opponents to weak contact was what set him apart from Noh despite allowing 1 more hit; Brooks had an SLG of 0.269 whereas Noh had an SLG of 0.800.
Aaron Brooks had a successful outing due to his “stuff” and the sustainability of his approach to attacking opponents. Noh Kyung-eun is approaching the end of his career and is losing his effectiveness due to an inability to reliably get left-handed hitters out.