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International Free Agent Profile: Hyeon-Jong Yang

There is a very good chance that the KIA Tigers post Hyeon-Jong Yang, a left-handed starting pitcher who was once one of their top prospects. Does the southpaw have the ability to play major league baseball, and if so, would he be a sound investment for the Mets?

Hyeon-Jong Yang
Hyeon-Jong Yang
Chung Sung-Jun

Born on March 1, 1988, in Gwangju, South Korea, one of the country's top gastronomic destinations, Hyeon-Jong Yang honed his baseball skills as a youth. Yang became a standout baseball star as a teenager, pitching for Dongsung High School in the 29th and 30th President's Cup National High School Baseball Championships in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and in the 36th Phoenix Flag National High School Baseball Championship in 2006. In all three competitions, the young left-hander dominated, helping lead his high school team to the finals in all three competitions. Based on his performance in those tournaments, Yang was named a member of the South Korean Junior National Team in the 2006 World Junior Championship. He posted a 1.04 ERA in 17.1 innings over the course of the event. As a result, Yang was considered a hot commodity and one of the top high school left-handed pitchers in South Korea, along with Kwang-Hyun Kim. Yang was selected by his hometown KIA Tigers with the ninth overall pick in the 2007 KBO Draft.

The young southpaw made his debut in April 2007, and like any other young player, he had some growing pains. Yang's performance—especially his control—was up and down early in the year, and he was therefore demoted from the Tigers at the end of May. He rejoined the team later in the year and was mostly used out of the bullpen, where he was much more effective. All in all, Yang ended his rookie season with a 4.17 ERA in 49.2 innings (six starts, 25 relief appearances), an impressive 48 strikeouts, but a disconcerting 31 walks. He actually took a few steps back in 2008, posting a 5.83 ERA in 75.2 innings (nine starts, 39 relief appearances), with 56 strikeouts and 48 walks. Much like the year before, he was given every opportunity to thrive as a starter before being relegated to the bullpen midseason.

Yang finally began achieving his potential in 2009. That year, he posted a 3.15 ERA in 148.2 innings (24 starts, five relief appearances), with 139 strikeouts and 58 walks. He led the league in numerous categories, including wins (ninth), ERA (fifth), strikeouts (fourth), and innings pitched (12th). By far, the best game of his career until that point came on August 11, when he threw 7.1 shutout innings against the Lotte Giants, striking out ten and walking none. The team and the pitcher drew momentum from each other, and the Tigers ended the season with the best KBO record and a Korean Series victory over the SK Wyverns. Yang was rewarded after the season, being tabbed as the starter for the 2009 KBO-NPB Club Championship game, an exhibition contest played between the winners of the KBO's Japan Series and the KBO's Korean Series. In the game, Yang allowed a run on three hits over five-plus innings, striking out six Yomiuri Giants.

The southpaw failed to build on his breakout 2009 season in 2010. Though he won four more games than he did in the previous year with a 16-8 record, he regressed in most other areas. His ERA rose from 3.15 to 4.25, his strikeout rate dropped, and his walk rate rose. That would, more or less, become the story of Hyeon-Jong Yang for the rest of his career through the present day. The left-hander would regularly be among the league leaders in wins, but his other stats were usually less than impressive. In particular, Yang's control always seemed to be a problem, causing the left-hander to be demoted to the Tigers' Futures League (minor league) team at times.

In 2013, the bespectacled lefty had something of a renaissance season. Though he only made 19 total appearances (17 starts) thanks to a somewhat serious rib injury that cost him almost two months, Yang posted respectable numbers in numerous pitching categories, including ERA, strikeout rate, and walk rate, for the first time in many years. In 2014, the 26-year-old Yang had a second good season. For the first time since 2010, he eclipsed the 100-strikeout mark, striking out 157 batters in 165 innings. Yang's trimmed-down walk rate and stinginess allowing home runs resulted in the southpaw posting a 3.49 FIP, one of the best marks of his career. While his 4.25 ERA is not impressive on the surface, only six pitchers posted an ERA below 4.00.

After the season ended, KIA officials informed the public that Yang had been interested in playing for an MLB team for some time, and that they were weighing the possibility of posting him. "Yang has expressed strong desire to go overseas," a KIA Tigers official said. "We're reviewing the possibility while considering a wide range of factors."

2010 22 30/30 169.1 4.25 3.91 145 98
2011 23 28/21 106.1 6.18 4.86 74 69
2012 24 28/5 41 5.05 5.15 26 31
2013 25 19/17 104.2 3.10 3.86 95 43
2014 26 28/28 165 4.25 3.49 157 73

According to information gathered by Daily News writer Mark Feinsand, Yang projects as a "number three starter" for an MLB club, with the potential to be a "number two". This is in start contrast to my own opinion of the southpaw, in addition to that of Sung-Min Kim, writing for River Avenue Blues, and other sources.

One of the main causes of this dissonance is Yang's fastball. According to the anonymous scout that fed Feinsand his information, Yang's fastball sits in the low-to-mid-90s, maxing out at around 95 mph. In various videos that Sung-Min Kim watched, the left-hander's fastball reached the high-80s, topping out around 90 or 91 mph. I purposefully watched other videos of the southpaw, and saw his velocity sit and top out at roughly the same velocities. In 2013, Clint Hulsey tracked Yang's fastball sitting a shade slower, at 88-89 mph, and topping out a bit higher, at 92 mph.

By far, Yang's best overall pitch is his slider. Ironically, according to game data, the lefty does not throw it all that much, generally reserving it for the strikeout. When working properly, the pitch has good vertical drop. In addition to the slider, Yang utilizes a changeup, his go-to off-speed pitch. Unfortunately for him, the results aren't always there on his changeup. While the pitch has about a 10 mph speed differential from his fastball, Yang often struggles to get his changeup to break. When he keeps it down, the changeup has nice fade to it—but keeping the pitch down is sometimes a struggle in and of itself.

Despite what Yang throws and how hard he throws it, a pitcher will have difficulty succeeding if he doesn't know where the ball is going; and Hyeon-Jong Yang historically has had such issues. For his career, the left-hander owns an ugly 4.7 BB/9 rate. His fastball can have good glove-side motion and/or sink when he uses the appropriate grips—while the failure to do so might exacerbate his control issues.

Despite Yang's warts, more than a few teams have been spotted scouting the 26-year-old. Throughout the 2014 season, the Red Sox, Cubs, and Rangers all sent scouts to Gwangju to watch him pitch, as did the Yomiuri Giants and other possible dark horse teams.

A major factor that will impact whether or not KIA posts their player is how much the SK Wyverns make from posting Kwang-Hyun Kim. The two left-handers, while obviously not identical players, have had similar and sometimes intersecting careers. Pitching with and against each other, both were drafted as young left-handed aces. Both ran into issues after just beginning to manifest their talent, and as a result, became non-factors for their respective teams. Both recently recaptured some of their old magic and logged respectable seasons right before being dangled in front of MLB and NPB teams. If Kwang-Hyun Kim brings the Wyverns a decent financial return in exchange for his contract, KIA will probably be more likely to post Yang. If Kim brings back a pittance—or does not even receive any bids, as unlikely as that scenario might be—KIA will probably be less likely to post Yang.

At the same time, KIA might do everything they can to avoid repeating a past mistake, namely their failure to cash in on Suk-Moon Yoon. Yoon, once one of the top pitchers in South Korea, seemed poised to be posted when he became a restricted free agent, but was convinced to stay with the Tigers for another two years. His value plummeted due to injuries, the Tigers played sub-.500 ball both years, and when Yoon eventually left to sign a deal with the Baltimore Orioles, the Tigers were no closer to fielding a championship-caliber team than they were when Yoon began inquiring about being posted. If the Tigers decide not to post Yang now, they can do so next winter. In 2016, Yang will be an unrestricted free agent, eligible to sign wherever he wants, on whatever continent he chooses.