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Scouting the Asian Market: LHP Kwang-Hyun Kim

The lefty Korean pitcher was posted back in the 2014–15 offseason, but didn't sign with an MLB team. He will be an unrestricted FA in several months. What does he look like on the mound?

Incheon Ilbo

You might have heard Kwang-Hyun Kim's name back in the winter of 2014. The left-handed pitcher was entering his age-26 season with eight years and 1,034 innings of a 3.30 ERA as a starter, and after expressing interest in pitching in MLB, was posted by his KBO team, the SK Wyverns. The San Diego Padres ended up winning the right to negotiate with him with a $2 million posting ,but they did not come to an agreement. The Padres offered him 2-year, $2 million contract with two team options (per Jon Heyman) but Kim opted to stay in KBO.

Unlike two years ago, where the ML teams needed to bid for the posting fee, Kim is going to be an unrestricted free agent after 2016,  fair game for every club. That will put less pressure on teams pursuing him, making the chance he jumps to MLB greater. He also just turned 28 in July, meaning that, if he were to head stateside next season, he'd still be in prime years of his career. Back in 2009, as a 20-year old, Kim was named by Baseball America as the no. 9 prospect participating in the World Baseball Classic, a list which, by the way, features a lot of familiar names. Fun fact: he's the only name in the top 10 that hasn't signed an ML deal.

I do think he has the stuff to play in the ML. Like Hyun-Jin Ryu and Seung-Hwan Oh, the stuff was never an issue with Kim. Per GSIntegration, a big league scout said  "He has big league stuff. Definitely a big league slider. But due to his control issues... I see his best fit as a major league matchup guy against left handed hitters."

Even on bad games, his fastball sits in the late-80's/early-90's range. He can bump it up to 93 mph, but it averages around 90 mph. Here's him throwing a 146 kmph (90.7 mph) on a game versus the Lotte Giants in April.

A lefty throwing 90 mph isn't a huge deal in ML but it's a good enough velocity to make some kind of living. His fastball is effective thanks to mixing it up with his slider, which, by the way, is pretty filthy. I think he could legitimately get a lot of swings-and-misses in ML with it. How nasty is it? Well, take a look...

That was also clocked at 86 mph. From my observations, his slider ranges around 82–87 mph. You want to see that break close-up? You got it.

Whoosh

His hard slider is as fine as you can find in KBO. Due to his very high release point, the pitch looks like it has a pretty big vertical break. Even when hitters make contact, most of the time it ends up being a grounder since they only manage to get the top part of the ball. Here's a SLG% chart from Statiz on his slider. He likes to locate them under and inside of the strike zone, for obvious reasons.

What keeps him from being a completely tantalizing MLB prospect is his command (or lack thereof). His career BB/9 is 3.9, which is higher than what scouts would like to see. If it helps, however, he has been pitching to a career-best 2.5 BB/9 so far this season while striking out just about the same rate (8.0 K/9) as he has over his whole career (7.7 K/9). That number may be a bit deceiving, however. According to zone map from Statiz, he's thrown 52.4% of his pitches inside the strike zone this year. Sure, some of the pitches he threw were purposefully out of the zone to lure the hitters but I don't think it's really encouraging to throw a hair above half of the pitches inside the zone. For comparison, last year, he put 51.2% of his pitches inside the zone but had a 3.36 BB/9 rate. I would imagine he's doing something different this year that enables hitters to make more contact.

Also, even with his better walk rate, his command is still not that reliable. On bad days, he can miss the target frequently. The margin of error is bigger in KBO than in MLB. There are times where he misses his fastball target but still induces a whiff due to the velocity. MLB hitters would be less forgiving of that kind of mistake. Also, I can imagine him having a hard time finishing hitters off, if they become sticklers on fouling off his fastball and slider. Below is not really something you want to see as a pitcher, but a scenario that could happen pretty frequently with medicore command (just look at the strike zone plot on the bottom right).

Kim's third pitch is also an issue. He throws a show-me curveball just to give hitters something to think about but, well, it's not great. It's big and loopy, not really a pitch that he should throw too often in MLB. Here's a gif of Eric Thames crushing one out for a three-run HR.

His injury history isn't great either. Prior to the 2016 season, out of nine KBO seasons, he made 25 starts or more in only four of them. From 2011 to 2013, he only made 52 starts total while dealing with shoulder injuries. At this moment, Kim hasn't made an appearance since July 2 due to pain on his throwing arm's elbow flexor. That is one of the reasons why most scouts don't consider him a starter in the majors. There are way too many question marks on him for teams to commit a rotation spot to.

According to GSIntegration, despite his up-and-down career path, ML teams have been interested in him for a long time. From the page, here's an interesting tidbit from an agent and a scout that gives a lot of "ifs" for Kim's pursuit of the majors.

An agent who requested anonymity said, "There are not many left-handed pitchers who can throw over 92 mph fastballs like Kim, even in the major leagues. He has scarcity value whether he is a starting pitcher or a reliever." A MLB Scout based out of Asia commented on Kim, "He is left-handed, so that’s a kind of plus tool." He added, "Kim is MLB ready, it’s more a matter of how much money he expects to be paid upon signing ... and what he expects his role to be once he gets there. However, it’s hard to say how he will do in MLB until he gets there. I think a lot of scouts underestimated how Hyun-Jin Ryu would do in the MLB. Others might have overestimated how Suk-Min Yoon would do, at least to this point."

I honestly feel that, if he were a Cuban player, he would be more sought out by ML clubs (two ML-quality pitches, long-term success in home nation league, international tourney experiences, etc.). He has clear flaws but I think the Padres would've offered him more than 2-year, $2 million had the value of KBO players not been so low. He's not a complete pitcher but has some clear upside and is making an effort to get to the next level. An MLB team that signs him could do one of two things with him: 1) put him in as a bullpen as a lefty reliever 2) encourage polishing his arsenal to give him a chance to stick in the rotation. Most scouts I've talked to worry about his command and durability and grade him as a ML reliever, which is what I anticipate for now. That's not a reason for the team that signs him (if one does) not to try, however; his potential impact as a starter is much greater.