Aaron Wilkerson (34), a member of the Lotte Giants’ 2024 foreign-born player class, was one of the best pitchers in the second half of the year.
Entering the Lotte organization as a replacement foreign player for Dan Streeley (35), who was out of form, Wilkerson was one of the players who fueled Lotte’s second half comeback. After coming on strong in the second half of the season, Wilkerson finished with a 7-2 record in 13 games with a 2.26 ERA (20 earned runs in 79⅔ innings), 81 strikeouts, and a 1.09 WHIP (walks allowed per inning).
Based on this performance, Wilkerson reunited with Lotte. On the 16th, Lotte announced that they had re-signed Wilkerson for a total of $950,000 ($150,000 signing bonus, $600,000 annual salary, $200,000 incentive). Wilkerson’s performance was perhaps deserved.
Wilkerson is only a year older than Straily, so some may be concerned about his decline. However, Straylor was able to overpower his somewhat unreliable fastball and dominate hitters with his game-changing slider. In his inaugural season in the KBO in 2020, he was able to dominate the Korean scene with his monotonous delivery, striking out 205 batters.
But the aging process came sooner than expected. His velocity dropped and his command wasn’t as good as it was in 2020. His velocity dropped and his pitches remained unreliable. Eventually, he was forced to leave the KBO because of his limitations.
Wilkerson doesn’t have a fastball like Straily. Instead, he has great command. His average velocity was 144.1 mph, but his 26.1-centimeter fastball with upward and downward movement allowed him to confidently face KBO hitters. His combination of a fastball, cutter, changeup, and slider, along with his changeup, made him a potent starter in the second half of the season. His strikeout rate was 9.15 per nine innings, more than a strikeout per inning, and his walk rate was only 2.26 per nine innings.
His aggressive style of pitching and extensive use of the borderline was the reason for his delayed arrival in the KBO, but it’s also why he’s rebounded so well in Korea after struggling in Triple-A this year. Wilkerson struggled in 14 games (six starts) for the Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators (Oakland Athletics), going 3-2 with a 6.51 ERA (34 earned runs in 47 innings). He struck out 53, walked 14 and hit 12 home runs. Even in the Pacific Coast League, Wilkerson’s performance was close to failing grade.
In a press conference after joining Lotte, Wilkerson said, “I had a hard time adjusting to the new rules in Triple-A, like robot umpires and pitch clocks. I’m excited to play ‘real baseball’ in Korea, and I want to compete and win here,” he said.
However, Wilkerson’s “real baseball” environment has changed again. The KBO decided to introduce an automated ball judgment system (ABS system), also known as robot umpires, starting in the 2024 season. The league will also introduce a pitch clock system.
The ABS system has been in use in the Futures League for four years since 2020, and the KBO analyzes that it has improved the precision and consistency of ball strike judgments and shortened the time it takes for the results to reach the umpires. The ABS system is also gaining ground in high school baseball. The ABS system allows batters and pitchers to be subject to the same strike call, which can help reduce controversy. It’s a move by the KBO that could help alleviate the growing number of complaints about on-field strike calls.
Pitch clock was also introduced in the major leagues this year. With a 15-second limit on pitches with no runners on base and a 20-second limit on pitches with runners in scoring position, the rule has had a positive impact on speeding up the game. In total, Major League Baseball has reduced the length of games from 3 hours and 4 minutes (9 innings) in 202 to 2 hours and 40 minutes. That’s a whopping 24 minutes.
The KBO has also decided to adopt pitch clocks to fulfill the task of speeding up the game. However, there is still a lot of debate as to whether it will be a major league-style pitch clock or if a new pitch clock rule will be created for the KBO.
For Wilkerson, he came to Korea in search of “real baseball” and away from the restrictions he struggled with in Triple-A, but now he has to pitch under uncomfortable rules again. Wilkerson’s borderline off-speed pitches could be penalized under the ABS system. In addition, his pitching rhythm could be affected, as Wilkerson’s pitches aren’t exactly short.
There’s no doubt about Wilkerson’s ability, but the circumstances around her are concerning. Will Wilkerson be able to overcome these concerns and continue his momentum as a second-year foreign player?
Shortly after re-signing with Lotte, Wilkerson said through the organization, “I’m excited to continue my career with the Lotte Giants in the 2024 season. I’m looking forward to helping the new manager Kim Tae-hyung achieve the team’s goal of winning a championship. I can’t wait to get back to Sajik Stadium and take the mound with the fans. I will prepare well for the remaining time so that I can be stronger than my opponents.”