For baseball players, enlisting in the military is usually considered one of the most difficult forms of service to maintain fitness. However, Cho Young-geon (24, Kiwoom Heroes) is in better shape than he was before he enlisted, raising expectations for the 2024 season.
Cho is a right-handed pitcher who was drafted with the 14th overall pick in the second round of the 2019 KBO Draft after graduating from Daejeon Shinheung High School, Chungnam Middle School, and Baeksong High School. The team had high hopes for him, even giving him a chance to start in 2020, but he didn’t make much of an impact and opted to resolve his military issues first in February 2022.
He was discharged from the military in August of this year and had a breakout season. In six games and 7⅔ innings, he allowed five hits, two walks, and seven strikeouts, striking out a batter in every game but the final one (against SSG on October 13), finishing the 2023 season without allowing an earned run. It’s a small sample size, but a positive one considering it’s a return to the big leagues after two years away. It’s even more encouraging given that pitchers who have completed active duty have struggled to return to the same level of performance.굿모닝토토 도메인
Among those six games, it was nice to see him get Jose Pirela to ground out to first base with a 147-kilometer per hour fastball in the top of the seventh inning against the Samsung Lions in Gochuk on October 10. At his best, he averaged 142.4 mph and topped out at 150 mph according to Statcast, but his average fastball velocity dropped to 137.6 mph in 2021, which was a key reason for Cho to enlist in the military.
Fortunately, after leaving the military, he was able to get his fastball back up to 150 kilometers per hour, and it was due to a unique military environment. He completed his service with the 3rd Corps in Inje, Gangwon Province. The team took care of the basics for him when he joined active duty, including a training program, but it was difficult to train in a military unit as much as in the pros. It’s not only about space and facilities, but also about the understanding of fellow soldiers and unit officials.
Cho didn’t have to worry about that part. “I unexpectedly felt that my time in the army was really short,” he said at the finalization camp in Wonju, Gangwon Province, in November. There were many people in the unit who loved baseball. Among the officers was Sergeant Jeon Binsu (No. 6 in the second round of the 2008 rookie draft), who used to play for SK, and some of my predecessors were baseball players, so I received help by working out with them,” he laughed.
“There were also a lot of Kiwoom fans among my coworkers, so we watched Kiwoom games together in the living room. It motivated me to say, ‘I want to play as soon as possible. I used my personal time to train very hard with weights, and as a result, I lost a lot of weight and gained muscle mass and was able to leave the army in good health.”
The biggest gain, however, was broadening his horizons and thinking away from his baseball-only life. “I think I’m really good in the military,” he said, summarizing his two years in the army. “Before I went to the army, I felt a lot of pressure to do well because I wanted to be in the first team and I felt like I had to look good for the team, so I made a lot of mistakes and didn’t show my true self,” he said. “In the unit (where I joined), I met people outside of baseball for the first time.”
“Living with normal people and listening to their thoughts, I realized that there were other directions other than baseball. It made me want to play baseball even more and miss it. After that, I felt the need to play baseball even more, so I worked hard, and I was also motivated by seeing my close friends from the class of 1999 doing well in the first team.”
On this day, Kiwoom concludes a month-long finalization camp. He has been focusing on the basics of quick motion, set position, and slide step, and honing his third pitch, the curve, since he was unable to play. The idea is that if he can improve his curveball, he will be able to utilize his fastball and slider more. Pitching coach Lee Seung-ho, who watched Cho’s training, said, “I felt that he is getting better in the future, including the part where he uses power. For now, I can only see the positives,” he praised.
The growth of the returning reserve is also important for Kiwoom. With the departure of ace Ahn Woo-jin (24) to social service in December, left-handed starting prospect Lee Seung-ho (24) to active duty, and right-hander Seung-jo Kim (26) to active duty, the Kiwoom mound is virtually devastated, both in the starting rotation and bullpen. With nothing certain, Cho Young-gun, along with Kim Jun-hyung (21), is seen as a key player in the mound reorganization. “Jo joined the team at the end of the season and gave our mound a big boost,” said Hong Won-ki, who watched him pitch in Wonju, “and it gave me hope that he can play an important role next year.
The reserve is just as determined to do well. “My goal is to stay in the first team for a long time in any position. Since elementary school, my dream has been to be a first-team player on TV. For that dream, my goal for next season is to finish the season in the first team without going down to the second team for the whole season,” he said.