On a hot and humid night in Busan on Sunday, July 9th a man stands up from the place he has occupied in the bullpen for the past two nights since his call-up from the Futures League and begins to warm up. The last out has just been recorded in the top of the seventh, and after six shutout innings from Song SeungJun (송승준) the SK Wyverns have finally broken the Lotte Giants defence to put 6 runs on the board.
In the bottom of the seventh the Lotte Giants manage to load the bases for one out vs SK’s ace, Merril Kelly, but fail to capitalise and go into the eighth inning at a 6-0 deficit. The speaker flares into life and announces the number and name of the pitcher approaching the mound to a standing ovation that gives way to a chorus of fans chanting his name; Number 37, Jo JeongHun (조정훈) is taking the mound in a KBO league game for the first time in seven years and twenty-five days.
In the 2005 KBO Second Round Draft the Lotte Giants selected Jo JeongHun from Masan Yongma High School as the first overall pick and signed him for 200 million won ($175,000). He immediately found himself utilised in the 2005 season as a part of the bullpen where he pitched 29 innings over 19 games for 1 win, 2 holds, and 19 strikeouts with a 6.83ERA.
Jo continued to see steady use from the bullpen until the 2008 season when Lotte Giants manager, Jerry Royster, and pitching coach, Fernando Arroyo made the decision to move him to the starting rotation where he pitched all bar the last two of his 14 outings. He finished the season with a 3.15 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and a 5-3 record with 54 strikeouts.
During the off-season Jo continued to grow and develop as a pitcher, and with the inclusion of a lethal forkball into his arsenal he had his breakout season in 2009. By the end of the 2009 season, he had pitched 182 1/3 innings across 27 games for 14 wins, 9 losses, and 175 strikeouts. Only two other pitchers matched his win total for the season – KIA Tigers’ Aquilino Lopez, and Samsung Lions’ Yoon SungHwan (윤성환).
In the first round of the 2009 playoffs Jo JeongHun pitched 7 2/3 innings giving up 2 runs, and striking out 7 to give Lotte a 7-2 win vs the Doosan Bears in the first game of a best-of-five series. Doosan would go on to sweep Lotte’s next three starters and advance to the playoff second round where they would be eliminated by the season runners-up, SK Wyverns.
Over the 2008 and 2009 seasons Jo’s nickname had previously been Jo-Pink after teammate Bae JangHo (배장호) posted photos of a sleeping Jo and his custom pink and black glove with the caption, “Even the dreamland must be pink” on the social media platform, Cyworld. Jo’s performance during the 2009 season, and his role in Lotte’s first post season win in nine years earned him the new nickname, ‘Post-Son MinHan’ from Korean netizens. Son MinHan (손민한), who retired in November 2015, is a former Lotte Giants and NC Dinos player whose achievements include winning the Golden Glove and Season MVP Awards in 2005, as well as multiple medals earned while representing Korea in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, and the 2000 Olympic Games. Jo’s comparison to Son was based on a similar stoic composure exhibited by both pitchers during games, and the belief that Jo JeongHun would soon grow to be Lotte’s next ace pitcher.
In the 2010 season Jo JeongHun picked up where he left off, and showed strong promise of bettering his numbers from 2009 by starting the season with a 5-3 record. During his fifth win of the season, however, he damaged his elbow ligaments and underwent Tommy John surgery in the US. In a study published by the American Journal of Orthopedics in 2016, elbow injuries were found to be responsible for about 19.6% of athletes assigned to the disabled list (DL) each year, and rehab times resulting from elbow injuries accounted for 28.2% of the total days spent on the DL among all injured baseball players. As the average recovery time for pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery is 17.8 months, Jo was placed on the KBO DL and began his mandatory military service as part of the public service sector on January 3rd, 2011. This posting would allow him adequate rest time before beginning a rehab program with the Sangdong military baseball team.
Over the course of 2011, damage to Jo’s shoulder requiring surgery was discovered and his rehabilitation was delayed until 2012. Following a successful shoulder operation he completed his military service in January 2013 and re-joined the Lotte Giants to complete his rehab in Saipan, and begin spring training in Kagoshima in February. His rehabilitation had been rushed however, and shortly into training Jo reported a recurring pain in his elbow. Following an extension of Jo’s rehab period a medical examination in July yielded that he had re-damaged the ligaments, and bones in his elbow. On November 14, 2013 he underwent Tommy John surgery again and began a two year rehab that saw him added to the KBO declared athlete’s list – a list that allows teams to maintain a player’s rights without declaring them as part of the active roster.
While Jo JeongHun participated in an exhibition game against the SK Wyverns, and a Futures League game against the Samsung Lions in 2015, swelling in his elbow and a drastic decrease in his fastball velocity between the two games convinced Jo, and the Lotte coaches that a longer recovery was in the best interests of both parties. For the remainder of the 2015, and 2016 seasons Jo didn’t pitch in any games and instead continued to focus on his recovery.
In April 2017, Jo JeongHun began pitching in the Futures League in 2017 under the guidance of pitching coach, Chris Oxspring who had also previously recovered from Tommy John surgery after completion of his first spell in the KBO with the LG Twins. Over 18 games Jo gradually increased his number of innings pitched until June where he consistently threw between 1 2/3 and 2 innings per game. On July 7th, 2017 he was called up to the Lotte Giants main roster, and on July 9th on a humid evening in Busan, he took the mound against the SK Wyverns.
With the home crowd in Sajik cheering him on, Jo struck out Kim SungHyun (김겅현) and Lee SeongWoo (이성우) in 4 pitches apiece. An error by the Lotte first baseman Lee DaeHo (이대호) allowed Noh SuKwang (노수광) to get on base on a short hopper to first, before Na JuHwan (나주환) grounded out on the next pitch to end the inning.
Fast forward to Tuesday, July 11th and once again, Jo took the mound in the eighth inning, this time against the Hanwha Eagles in Daejeon. After getting 2-1 ahead in the count he gave up a lead-off single against Ha JooSuk (하주석) who was quickly bunted over to second for the first out by Choi JaeHoon (최재훈). Using his trademark forkball, Jo grounded out Yang SungWoo (양성우) on the first pitch while Ha advanced to third. After giving an intentional walk to Jeong KeunWoo (정근우) who was 3 for 3 at the time, Jo grounded-out Lee YongKyu (이용규) to short and closed out his second scoreless inning in as many games.
While Jo JeongHun did not show the 150km/h fastball velocity that he previously had, he appears to have developed his arsenal to include a range of off-speed pitches between 130 and 145 km/h, a curveball, slider, and a forkball that looks as deceptive as it did back in 2009. With this arsenal at his disposal, Jo seems to be settling nicely into the bullpen’s set-up role, where he has greatly bolstered the stability of a Lotte side that despite 15 blown saves this season, currently sit just 2 games shy of the Doosan Bears, and the fifth place wild card spot that could mark the Giants’ first attempt at a post season run since 2012.
Following Nick Additon’s placement on waivers by the Lotte Giants on Wednesday, July 12th after going 2-7 in 13 starts, it is unclear moving into the All-Star break on whether the Lotte coaching staff will move Jo JeongHun back into the starting rotation in the latter half of the season, or cement him in his current role as setup man, but regardless of where Jo is utilised going forward, his receptions in Sajik on Sunday, and in Daejeon on Tuesday have sent the message from the fans loud and clear: Jo JeongHun, welcome home.