Ji-min Choi, a second-year left-handed pitcher for the KIA Tigers, has been on fire.
In 21 appearances, Choi has a 2-0 record, 3 shutouts, 1 save, and a 1.07 ERA. This is the third-best ERA among relievers and the lowest in the league among left-handed pitchers (second-place lefty Lee Jun-young has a 1.50 ERA).
On the 29th, existing closer Jung Hae-young was sent down to the Future League due to continued struggles. This naturally opened the door for Choi Ji-min to take over the closer’s role.
Manager Kim Jong-guk had already been exploring the possibility of Choi’s closing role. In the bottom of the ninth inning of a 7-3 game against 스포츠토토 the Daegu Samsung Lions on July 17, Jung was called upon to close out the game. However, Jeong gave up three runs with one out, putting the team in trouble.
In the bottom of the ninth, with one out and runners on first and second, Kim Jong-guk turned to Choi Ji-min. Choi struck out Koo Ja-rook and Kang Min-ho on consecutive grounders to end the game. Choi earned her first career save in a clutch situation.
Choi is only in his second year, but he’s already shown that he can handle the pressure. His BABIP in 2023 is already impressive at .195, but in clutch situations (CL&L) with less than three runs in the seventh inning or later, his BABIP is untouchable at .118. His FIPS plummets to .284 (season FIPS .460).
Last year, Choi averaged a mediocre 141.1 km/h on his fastball, but with consistent work at Geelong Korea, he saw the potential to increase his velocity. By the 2023 season, Choi had a top speed of 150 km/h and an average velocity of 145.4 km/h.
The fastball’s increased velocity has been aided by a matching slider. Last season, Choi’s slider had a .429 BABIP, but this year it has plummeted to .077. His swinging strike rate is 44.4%. Most importantly, Choi’s slider hasn’t allowed a single hit against lefties.
His improved velocity and increased slider command culminated in a 17-game scoreless streak. From April 20 against the Sasik Lotte Giants to May 27 against the Gwangju LG Twins, Choi did not allow a single run to the opposition. He is the only pitcher to throw more than 20 innings during that time.
Jung is the youngest player to hold the KBO’s closing pitcher title. From the youngest single-season 30-save pitcher in history to the youngest 50-save pitcher to the youngest 30-save pitcher in two consecutive years. Even though Jung has been sent down to the Futures League, the back door of the KIA is not unprotected by Choi Ji-min.