After stacking innings in KBO, Rucinski back in US

February 21st, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- As new A’s right-hander logged 732 2/3 innings for the NC Dinos of the KBO League from 2019-22, he became known around the league. Maybe even a little feared.

“[Opponents] definitely knew when he was pitching,” said A’s non-roster invitee , who spent 2022 with SSG Landers in Korea.

Rucinski, 34, enters his first Major League Spring Training since 2018 with a $3 million contract and an elevated confidence gained from regular work. He had 19 wins in the 2020 regular season and added two more in the postseason to help the Dinos win the Korean Series.

That durability makes Rucinski a strong candidate for a spot in Oakland's starting rotation, which also is projected to include , and Shintaro Fujinami.

“I want to be part of something building here,” said Rucinski, who spent time with five Major League organizations before leaving for Korea.

“I’m excited to go out there and show what I can do. I look forward to the opportunity.”

If the numbers translate, the A’s would have a pitcher to build with.

Rucinski had 53 regular-season victories in 121 starts with the Dinos. He made at least 30 starts every season. He showed an ability to throw strikes with a five-pitch mix featuring a cutter and two- and four-seam fastballs, and he also kept the ball on the ground with a ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of 2.68.

“Watching his ‘pens, he definitely can command the baseball," A's manager Mark Kotsay said. “He looks like a strike-thrower who knows how to pitch. He’s been around, the experience he’s had, all those things combined.

“When you acquire a guy, you think about the transition period for him. Going through this Spring Training will give us an even better idea of his pitchability. That’s exciting for us to go and watch.”

The way Rucinski sees it, the success was a byproduct of opportunity.

“It was awesome just to have the ability to know you are going to go out there and pick up the ball,” Rucinski said. “It’s learning how to be consistent every week. Being the best guy you can be when you go out there. Focusing on how to handle my routine to be that best guy.

“Everything got sharper and more consistent. Being able to put the ball where I want to. Cleaned everything up a little bit. A lot of starts. A lot of wins. A lot of innings. That helps you grow your game and get better at it. Being the same guy each week, that’s the biggest thing.”

Arizona right-hander Merrill Kelly is the most striking recent example of a player who excelled after returning from a successful run in Korea. Kelly spent four years with SK Wyverns from 2015-18 and has become one of the Diamondbacks’ most consistent starters since returning in '19. He was 30 when he got back.

“I don’t know him well,” Rucinski said of Kelly. “Obviously I know his story. He’s had tremendous success over here. Hopefully I can try to replicate that over here.

“Guys that have success in the KBO seem to have the similar kind of stuff. They can hit the strike zone with multiple pitches and keep throwing strikes. The Korean hitters really foul pitches off, so you have to continue to stay in that zone.”

Other pitchers have made a successful transition from overseas. Miles Mikolas has 41 victories for St. Louis since returning from three seasons with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan in 2018. Brooks Raley won 48 games as a starter for Lotte of the KBO from 2015-19 and has spent the past three seasons in a Major League bullpen. He signed a $4.5 million contract with the Mets in the offseason.

Rucinski is prepared for the challenge.

“I’m always going to put the hard work in and be the best guy I can be out there,” he said. “I’m never going to go out there and be looking back and, ‘Oh, I should have done something better to prepare that week.’

“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, or feel like there is something to prove. But I definitely want to do well, and I want to do well for the guys coming back from the KBO in the future. Those guys can pitch over here, too.”