By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) -- Over the past four seasons in South Korean baseball, few pitchers have been as consistent as Eric Jokisch of the Kiwoom Heroes. The American left-hander is hoping that sustained success will lead to more team glory in 2023, with the Heroes having come up short in the Korean Series twice during his time in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).
In 2019, Jokisch's first season here, the Heroes were swept by the Doosan Bears in the best-of-seven series. Then last year, they fell to the SSG Landers in six games. They led 4-2 entering the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 5, three outs away from taking a 3-2 series lead, but gave up a walkoff three-run home run to pinch hitter Kim Kang-min. In Game 6, the Landers rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win 4-3, with Jokisch, pitching in relief, being charged with the loss.
And it's the hunger for the championship that had Jokisch come back for another go with the Seoul-based team. He re-signed for US$1.5 million last month.
"I'm excited to get back to the team and coaching staff with one goal in mind, and that's to win the Korean Series," Jokisch told Yonhap News Agency in a recent interview. "I hope that we can play with freedom and excitement instead of pressure. We play our best when we are having fun and playing without fear of failure. I'm very excited to see how far our team can go."
Jokisch, after not making any relief appearance during four regular seasons here, pitched out of the bullpen three times in last year's postseason, including in that fateful Korean Series game.
"The postseason is about giving everything you can for the team. It was difficult coming out of the bullpen and starting on short rest. But in that situation, I have to give my max effort to help the team win, even though my body and arm were exhausted," he said. "This year, I hope to help the team get that final win in the Korean Series."
From 2019 to 2022, Jokisch ranks among the KBO leaders in major pitching categories: first in ERA for starters (2.71), first in opponents' on-base plus slugging (.622), second in innings (707 2/3), second in starts (118), third in wins (51) and third in strikeouts (541).
Few foreign pitchers have been good enough for long enough to accumulate as many innings as Jokisch in any four-year stretch. In 2023, he will be one of just two foreign pitchers -- Casey Kelly of the LG Twins being the other -- entering Year 5 in the KBO. Even among homegrown hurlers, not many get to stay in their rotation for that long, due to injuries or bouts of inconsistency.
Jokisch, who won't blow away hitters with fastballs, said the biggest key to his success in the KBO has been consistency, both in his performance and preparation. He failed to complete at least five innings just once out of 30 starts last year.
"I've been very healthy for the last four years, and I'm very grateful for that because there is some luck involved in being healthy," he said. "I'm also very proud of the way I have performed every year. I make adjustments and I'm prepared for every single start. I think if you look at guys like Casey Kelly, David Buchanan (of the Samsung Lions) and me, you'll see that we don't have the hardest fastball or the best breaking balls, but we are prepared and coaches know they are getting our best effort every single game."
It could be argued that successful foreign pitchers would have made it back to the majors after a couple of years here and thus would not have been around to accumulate the kind of counting stats that Jokisch has. There are some recent precedents of foreign pitchers in the KBO re-establishing themselves in Major League Baseball (MLB). And it's not as though Jokisch himself hasn't had the opportunity.
Jokisch reportedly drew interest from multiple big league clubs this winter, too, although he said he was "shocked" to read reports that had him possibly return to the majors in 2023.
"My intention was always to come back to Kiwoom," the one-time Chicago Cubs pitcher said. "In every offseason, we listen to anything teams in America have to offer, but we always expected to come back and are excited for another season in the KBO."
The Heroes weren't expected to fight for the title last year -- some pundits even had them miss the postseason in their preseason prognostication -- and even if they were to return to the postseason in 2023, their contention window will be closing fast afterward.
That's because Lee Jung-hoo, the best hitter in the KBO and the reigning league MVP, will be posted for major league clubs after the 2023 season. He will likely land a major league deal and leave a gaping hole in the Heroes' lineup in 2024 and beyond.
Jokisch, who is probably glad he doesn't have to pitch to Lee, called his All-Star teammate "an unbelievably gifted player and natural leader." And Lee has the work ethic to boot.
"He's a very hard worker who is never satisfied. Many players rely on their natural talent and never reach their full potential. But with Jung-hoo, that will not be the case," Jokisch said. "He will become the best player he can and I believe that he will be a potential All-Star in MLB. He will do everything he needs to do to succeed."
Jokisch has been putting in the work this winter, too. Jokisch threw more innings last year, at age 33, than in any of his previous KBO seasons, tossing 185 1/3 innings in the regular season and 21 1/3 more across three rounds of the postseason.
After shouldering such a heavy workload, Jokisch said rest and recovery have been central to his offseason training so far. He said the same should go for his rotation mate An Woo-jin, who led all pitchers with 196 innings in the regular season and 26 2/3 more in the postseason.
"I'm getting prepared through workouts and throwing but I've definitely moved from heavy lifting and extreme throwing to focusing on specific movements with less weight," he said. "For Woo-jin and me especially, we threw an extreme amount of innings last year. We have to be very focused on our preparation for next year and balancing hard work, rest, and recovery."
While competing for the championship in South Korea, Jokisch said he has also developed stronger self-esteem over the years.
"I was always told that my stuff was not good enough and I started to believe that," Jokisch said of his time in the United States. "The Heroes believed in me and over my four years in Korea, I now believe in myself more than I ever have. The No. 1 thing the KBO has taught me is to trust myself and my ability."
Living here has also been an eye-opening experience for his young family, Jokisch added.
"My family has adjusted and changed our mentality so much in a positive way thanks to Korea," he said. "Korea has taught me and my family to be more patient and kind people. My family has grown a ton since being in Korea and we are definitely better people because of the experience."