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« Rangy Andrus Signed Through Arbitration Years | Main | Fastball Velocity and BABIP »

Kuo Signs with the M's

Few players have had to overcome more obstacles than lefty reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, who signed a non-guaranteed MLB contract with the Mariners on Monday. The 30-year-old has undergone five elbow surgeries -- including two Tommy John procedures -- since signing with the Dodgers out of Taiwan back in 1999. He also dealt with anxiety issues in 2011 that reportedly had him contemplating retirement. Here's hoping that Kuo is healthy all-around in 2012, as he's as nasty as any reliever in baseball when he's on his game.

Kuo was unhittable as recently as 2010, when he had a staggering 321 ERA+ in 60 innings pitched. That was one of the best ERA+ totals ever among relievers logging at least 60 frames:

Rk Player ERA+ IP Year Tm
1 Dennis Eckersley 610 73.1 1990 OAK
2 Jonathan Papelbon 517 68.1 2006 BOS
3 Chris Hammond 441 76 2002 ATL
4 Jose Mesa 418 64 1995 CLE
5 David Robertson 410 66.2 2011 NYY
6 Eric O'Flaherty 389 73.2 2011 ATL
7 John Smoltz 385 64.1 2003 ATL
8 Dale Murray 374 69.2 1974 MON
9 Tim Burke 356 91 1987 MON
10 Eric Gagne 337 82.1 2003 LAD
11 B.J. Ryan 335 72.1 2006 TOR
12 Rollie Fingers 333 78 1981 MIL
13 Bruce Sutter 328 107.1 1977 CHC
14 Ugueth Urbina 325 69.1 1998 MON
15 Carlos Marmol 325 69.1 2007 CHC
16 Hong-Chih Kuo 321 60 2010 LAD
17 Armando Benitez 319 69.2 2004 FLA
18 Takashi Saito 319 64.1 2007 LAD
19 Mariano Rivera 319 70.2 2008 NYY
20 J.J. Putz 319 71.2 2007 SEA

Source: Baseball-Reference

While a .207 BABIP certainly had something to do with Kuo's 1.20 ERA, he dominated the competition by striking out 32% of the batters he faced. He did that with a fastball that averaged 94.2 mph and got a miss 30% of the time that hitters offered at it, dusting the 18% average for relief pitchers. Kuo elevated the fastball...

Kuo's fastball location, 2010

And opponents didn't have a prayer against those upper-zone heaters. Take a look at hitters' contact rate by pitch location vs. Kuo's fastball in 2010, and then the league average:

Hitters' contact rate by pitch location vs. Kuo's fastball, 2010

Average hitter contact rate by location vs. fastballs, 2010

In 2011, however, Kuo lost control of his fastball and a few ticks of velocity (down to an average of 92.5 mph). He was especially prone to missing high out of the zone:

Kuo's fastball location, 2011

Kuo threw 55% of his fastballs in the zone in 2010, but that fell to just 47% in 2011. That, coupled with spottier control of his slider (45 Zone% in 2010, 35 Zone% in 2011) led to Kuo issuing 21 unintentional walks in 27 innings.

Non-tendered by the Dodgers, Kuo will have to pitch his way on to Seattle's squad this spring. He'll make $1 million if he cracks the 25-man roster, and he can earn up to $2.25 million more in incentives. We'll be rooting for Kuo to have a happy, lucrative 2012 season.

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