KBO teen pitching sensation lives up to hype, nabs top rookie award

SEOUL, For the Hanwha Eagles, a downtrodden franchise long removed from glory days in South Korean baseball, teenage right-hander Moon Dong-ju brought a ray of sunshine in 2023.

Still about a month away from his 20th birthday, Moon was named the Rookie of the Year in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) on Monday. He went 8-8 with a 3.72 ERA, and led all rookie pitchers with 95 strikeouts in 118 2/3 innings.

Moon collected 85 out of 111 votes from media, easily beating out Kia Tigers pitcher Yoon Young-cheol, who had 15 votes.

Hanwha Eagles pitcher Moon Dong-ju speaks after receiving the Rookie of the Year award at the Korea Baseball Organization Awards ceremony in Seoul on Nov. 27, 2023.

More so than these raw numbers, Moon represents hope for a better future for the Eagles, who haven't won a Korean Series title since 1999 and have played in the postseason just once since 2007.

Because they have often finished in last place in recent years, the Eagles have had several No. 1 overall picks in the draft, in addition to high first-round selections in other years. However, few of those top prospects have panned out, with some barely getting their feet wet in pro ball before getting released.

The Eagles' poor track record of player development is one thing. They've also had some bad luck in the territorial draft, whereby teams can choose one player from their own region. The Eagles are based in Daejeon, some 160 kilometers south of Seoul in Chungcheong region, and that area hasn't produced many prospects in recent years.

In this file photo from Sept. 3, 2023, Hanwha Eagles starter Moon Dong-ju pitches against the LG Twins during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul.

The Eagles finally got their break at the 2021 territorial draft, when the bottom-three teams from 2020 were allowed to select a player from outside their area. After finishing in last place n 2020, the Eagles chose Moon out of Gwangju Jinheung High School in the southwestern city of Gwangju.

The Eagles put him in a bubble wrap and capped his innings for the season at 120. Moon finished 1 1/3 innings shy of that mark, and his last regular season game came on Sept. 3.

He threw 105 pitches in that game, his second-highest total this year after tossing 108 in July. He topped the century mark in pitch count four times in his 23 starts.

In this file photo from Oct. 7, 2023, South Korean starter Moon Dong-ju celebrates after retiring the side in the bottom of the sixth inning during the Asian Games baseball gold medal game against Chinese Taipei at Shaoxing Baseball and Softball Sports Centre in Shaoxing, China.

Though Moon's KBO season ended early, he had international duties later in the year. He pitched twice at the Asian Games in China in October, including a brilliant performance in South Korea's 2-0 over Chinese Taipei in the gold medal game. Moon struck out seven and gave up just three hits in six shutout innings.

Moon also appeared in a game at the Asia Professional Baseball Championship for the under-24 national team, giving up two runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings against Australia.

Moon is the first Eagles player to win the Rookie of the Year award since Ryu Hyun-jin in 2006. Ryu also won the MVP award that same year and left for Major League Baseball after the 2012 season. While with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2019, Ryu led the majors in ERA and finished second in the National League (NL) Cy Young Award voting. He also became the first South Korean pitcher to start an All-Star Game that summer.

Whether Moon can follow in Ryu's footsteps remains to be seen. At least in his first full pro season, though, Moon proved he has the talent and flair for the dramatic to carve out a strong career of his own.

Source: Yonhap News Agency