CHANGWON -- At the tender age of 23, NC Dinos' starter Koo Chang-mo may already have become the ultimate Zen master in South Korean baseball.
He has figured out how to pitch with an empty mind, a state where he is clear of unnecessary thoughts and his focus is solely on his target.
"When I am on the mound, I am not thinking of anything else but trying to hit the catcher's mitt," Koo told reporters Wednesday prior to a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) regular season game versus the SK Wyverns at Changwon NC Park in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
"And when I get into a jam, I step off the mound and take a deep breath," Koo added. "And then I start pitching without really thinking."
That approach has clearly worked. Koo is tied for the league lead with four wins and has the sole possession of the lead in ERA with 0.51 and strikeouts with 38. He has been nominated for the Player of the Month award for May.
Koo now has opposing hitters thinking and guessing at the plate, with an array of pitches all coming from the same arm angle. He has been able to command breaking balls so well that he can throw them for strikes or hit corners of the zone to induce weak contact.
In another mind-boggling stat, Koo has thrown first pitch strikes 76.4 percent of the time, a development Koo attributes to newfound confidence on the mound.
To that end, Koo credited his mental skills coach, Woo Jin-hee, for being his biggest influence this year.
Koo made his debut in 2016 as a 19-year-old, and the Dinos have carefully groomed him to be the KBO's next great left-hander who would succeed two current major league pitchers, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Toronto Blue Jays and Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals.
There were more than a few speed bumps along the way for Koo. In his first season as a starter in 2017, he was 7-10 with a 5.32 ERA. He pitched a career-high 133 innings in 23 starts the following year, and pitched to a 5-11 record and a 5.35 ERA.
In 2019, he was limited to 19 starts due to a back injury, but he posted a 3.20 ERA while going 10-7.
"Over the years, I've realized winning games as a starter can be really tough," Koo said. "I've learned so much from those seasons. Getting hurt last year taught me how important it is to take care of my body and stay on the field. I used to run out of gas in the summer, and I want to address that issue this year."
With the US sports cable giant ESPN televising KBO games this season, Koo's excellent start to the 2020 season has generated much buzz in North America, too.
"I am really happy with all that attention, but at the same time, it puts some pressure on my shoulders because it's still early in the season and I have a long ways to go," Koo said. "I am trying to stay even keeled and keep doing what I've been doing."
Koo has been virtually unhittable in his first five starts in 2020, but he knows he will not always be this dominant in every game this year.
"I will have some bad days down the road, and my goal as a starter is to throw as many innings as I can and contribute to the team's victories," Koo said. "I want to first pitch enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, and then think about winning over 10 games and keeping my ERA below 3.00." (Yonhap)