By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 21 (Yonhap) -- As a former pitcher who has been in the trenches and emerged a winner, Brandon Knight, now pitching coach of the Nexen Heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), commands respect from his players.
And the 42-year-old coach demands excellence from his hurlers, trying to help the men enjoy the same kind success he did in the South Korean league.
Knight last pitched for the Heroes in 2014, his seventh KBO season, and became the team's minor league pitching coordinator in November 2015. He was promoted to the big club in July last year.
The 2018 season, which starts Saturday, will be Knight's first full season as the Heroes' pitching coach. And after spending barely half a season with the club last year, Knight has already figured out what needs to be done with his staff, especially in this offense-happy league.
"You need to keep the ball down and make your pitches because hitters in this league are so good," Knight told Yonhap News Agency before his team hosted the LG Twins in a preseason game at Gocheok Sky Dome. You get the ball up in the air in this league and it's going to go."
Specifically, Knight is trying to get his pitchers to throw more two-seam fastballs in order to keep hitters off balance.
"As you're seeing in the U.S., everybody is throwing something that's moving," he said. "You can throw 98 miles per hour, but if it's straight, guys are going to turn it around. If you can get it to move just a little bit, it changes everything. You don't have to throw hard, especially not in this league. Just get a little bit of change, and start hitting the bottom of the bat (for soft contact)."
Knight pitched for the Samsung Lions in 2009 and 2010, before joining the Heroes for four more seasons. He compiled a 48-38 record with a 3.84 ERA in 128 appearances. Knight's best season came in 2012, when he led the league with a 2.20 ERA and 208 2/3 innings pitched, and ranked second with 16 victories.
And he has witnessed firsthand just how easily teams can score a bunch of runs in a hurry.
"They say hitting is contagious. I don't know if there's any other place I've played where it's more contagious than the KBO," said Knight, who has pitched in Major League Baseball and in Japan. "Trying to stay away from a big inning is crucial in every league, but for whatever reason, of all the leagues I've ever been in, this league is the one where, if you can stay away from a big inning, you're going to be successful."
And Knight believes letting opponents put up crooked numbers on the board is what cost the Heroes a few games -- and ultimately a playoff spot -- late last season.
"We would take the lead in a game and then the next inning, we'd give it right back," he said. "From the hitters' standpoint, your job is to keep those things out of your mind and just continue to hit. But after a while, every time we take the lead and we give it right back, it's deflating. We're only human. It takes out the energy from the team and from the fans. It gives the other team more momentum."
Aside from adding two-seamers to the repertoire, Knight has urged his pitchers to pound the zone early and not waste too many pitches. To that end, fastball command will be the key.
"We threw away too many pitches last year. I want to see us be more aggressive and not have so many long at-bats," the coach said. "By the time I got here (in early August), our bullpen was worn out. I want there to be more contributions from the rest of the bullpen so we can save ourselves and have a good finish at the end."
And Knight would also like to see his starters go deep as often as possible and minimize the burden on the relievers. He singled out his two former big league pitchers, Esmil Rogers and Jake Brigham, to be "the stabilizing force."
Rogers pitched parts of 2015 and 2016 seasons with another KBO club, the Hanwha Eagles, and joined the Heroes last winter after spending 2017 in the U.S. minor leagues. Brigham arrived in Seoul last May and this will be his first full KBO season.
Knight was high on Rogers, who has 210 major league games for four different clubs to his credit.
"From a stuff standpoint, he's as good as anybody out there. He's got a very good feel for what he wants to do," Knight said. "Even when he's struggling with one pitch, he can go to another. He's constantly keeping hitters off balance with quality stuff."
One important thing for Rogers is to harness his energy on the mound, according to Knight.
"He's a flamboyant type of guy. He's shown me so far that he's willing to put the hard hat on and to go to work, and make sure he's doing what's best for the team while also having some of that flair that he has," Knight added. "I don't want him to change who he is. I want him to play with the energy and flair that he normally does, as long as he can control that and not let it turn into something else."
As for Brigham, Knight said he had a much better 2017 season than his numbers showed: a 10-6 record in 24 starts with a 4.38 ERA. The coach said Brigham has "all the tools" to be the frontline pitcher.
"Can he be consistent enough? That's what we're working on with him," Knight said. "He understands how to pitch. He's an aggressive guy. That's what I want for him -- to continue to stay aggressive. Like Esmil, I expect Jake to have a big impact on this team. And he's ready. He wants it."
And Knight has been able to make the transition from the KBO's minor leagues to the big show thanks to those pitchers' respect for him.
"I've got that respect from them. They've come in knowing that I have a pretty decent idea of what it takes to pitch here and be successful here, not only on the field but off the field," Knight said. "That's been nice for me to see."
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