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International Free Agent Profile: Kwang-Hyun Kim

The SK Wyverns will be posting the left-handed pitcher this offseason. Does he represent a worthwhile upgrade to the Mets' pitching staff?

Kwang-Hyun Kim
Kwang-Hyun Kim
Chung Sung-Jun

Both on July 22, 1988, in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, Kwang-Hyun Kim excelled in baseball as a youth. A top pitching prospect for An-San Technical High School, Kim left his mark on baseball with dominant performances in domestic high school tournaments and in international U-18 competitions in 2004, 2005, and 2006. In 2007, he was selected by the SK Wyverns in the first round of the KBO draft and agreed to a 500-million-won signing bonus (roughly $475,000). The 19-year-old debuted that year, and while his numbers were overall decent, his rookie campaign could be considered something of a disappointment compared to expectations. He struggled early, but got hot in the second half of the season. To silence any remaining doubters, the young southpaw pitched a gem of a game in his last appearance of the season, Game Four of the 2007 Korea Series against the Doosan Bears. Kim tossed seven shutout innings, allowing only one hit and striking out a career-high nine, out-pitching 2007 KBO MVP Danny Rios.

Kim's brilliance at the end of the 2007 season was just a warm-up. In 2008, the youngster realized his potential and exceeded the relatively high expectations that many in the Wyverns front office had set when Kim was drafted. With 16 wins and 150 strikeouts, the All-Star left-hander won two of the three necessary categories for a Triple Crown. While he ended the season with a 2.39 ERA—0.06 points behind league leader Suk-Min Yoon, and thus missing out on the Triple Crown—Kim still brought home impressive hardware, tallying 51 of 94 votes for KBO MVP honors. The Wyverns made it to the Korea Series again that year, and once again found themselves facing the Doosan Bears. Though the Wyverns dropped the first game, they won the next four, repeating as champions.

The 21-year-old recovered from a less-than-stellar World Baseball Classic performance to cement his place as one of the premier young pitching talents in the KBO in 2009, recording his second consecutive All-Star season. Though some of his peripherals took a step back—his home run and walk rates jumped, while his strikeout rate stood mostly pat—Kim logged a second consecutive plus-season, going 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA. In his first start in August, against Doosan, Kim logged one of his worst career performances to that point in his career, allowing four runs in just two innings. To make matters worse, he was struck in the hand by a comebacker off of the bat of Hyun-Soo Kim in the second, breaking his hand and ending his season. Despite making only 21 starts, the lefty's 138.1 innings pitched were enough to qualify him for the leader boards and, as such, his 2.80 ERA was good enough to capture the KBO ERA title. The Wyverns made it to the Korea Series again at the end of the year, facing the KIA Tigers without their young ace. The Wyverns forced a Game Seven in an exciting series, but were unable to put the Tigers away, just missing out on a Korea Series three-peat.

As good as Kim was in 2008 and 2009, he was even better in 2010. Starting a career-high 31 games and pitching 193.2 innings, the lefty went 17-7, posting career bests in ERA (2.37) and strikeouts (183). The Wyverns made it to the Korea Series for the fourth season in a row and for the third time in recent memory, they took home the gold, sweeping the Samsung Lions.

After the 2010 season, Kim was a three-time All-Star, as well as a former MVP and Golden Glove winner, regularly at the top of various pitching categories. As the saying goes, "when you're at the top, there's nowhere to go but down." Kwang-Hyun Kim precipitously fell from his status as one of the top pitchers in South Korea in a bizarre and dangerous twist of fate. That offseason, at the tender age of 23, the southpaw suffered a cerebral infarction—in layman's terms, a stroke. He suffered paralysis to various parts of his body, including complete paralysis in the majority of muscles in his face, in addition to a host of other medical problems. Owing to the wonders of medical science, as well as his own determination, the youngster not only rehabilitated himself to the point that he made a full recovery and would be able to live a normal life, but was able to get himself back on the mound midway through the 2011 season. The results weren't exactly there, but the fact that he was able to pitch at all was extremely impressive.

In 2012, Kim suffered from shoulder issues that kept him sidelined for the first two months of the season. He made only 16 starts that year, and wasn't particularly effective in the innings that he did pitch.

Kim began the 2013 season on the disabled list, rehabbing his ailing shoulder, but returned to the field in mid-April and went on to make more than 20 starts for the first time since his stroke. He attributed his improvement largely to the fact that he regained some of his confidence. "People who have been injured will always be anxious," he said. "At the beginning of the season, I started to feel that I wasn't hurting anymore and that helped me regain confidence. I guess you could say I was throwing with my heart and soul. As long as I can pitch with confidence, things will be fine."

An additional shot of confidence by being named Opening Day starter in 2014 seemingly did wonders for the southpaw, as he rebounded nicely to post the best season of his post-stroke career. In a year in which offense in the KBO was at an all-time high, Kim was one of the more effective pitchers in the league. While he did not return to the level of dominance that he once displayed, the lefty was more than serviceable. His 173.2 innings pitched were the most he had thrown in four years, and with a 3.42 ERA—one of only six pitchers with an ERA under 4.00 on the season—the majority of those innings were quality innings.

In addition to playing in Korea, Kwang-Hyun Kim has a lot of experience playing in international competitions. In 2007, he played in the Asia Series—then called the Konami Cup—with the rest of the KBO champion Wyverns. In 2008, he helped the South Korean delegation win its first gold medal in the Olympics, posting a 1.26 ERA in two starts, striking out 12 batters in 14.1 innings, helping the country win its first ever gold medal in baseball, and helping himself with an exemption for compulsory military service. Kim participated in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and was unfortunately very ineffective for the eventual runners-up. The lefty made one start and appeared in four games, posting a 21.60 ERA. In the 3.1 innings he pitched in the tournament, Kim allowed 10 hits (one home run) and struck out five batters, while walking two. He was on the roster for the 2010 Asian Games, but withdrew due to his stroke. He finally made his Asian Games debut in 2014, and was effective for the Korean team. Given the honor by manager Jong-Il Ryu of being the first pitcher to start, the southpaw held Team Thailand off the board for five innings in what would be a mercy-rule-shortened five-inning 15-0 shutout.

2010 22 31/31 193.2 2.37 3.48 183 84
2011 23 17/17 74.1 4.84 4.49 61 45
2012 24 16/16 81.2 4.30 5.10 65 36
2013 25 25/25 133 4.47 4.37 102 68
2014 26 28/28 173.2 3.42 3.68 145 81

At 6 feet 2 inches, 193 pounds, there is no question as to whether Kim is "big enough" for MLB. He begins his delivery with a very pronounced high leg kick, tucking his glove away to give his pitches deception. He throws mostly over the top, but because he has a long stride and bends his knees when he delivers, his release point drops. The many moving parts in his windup and delivery have caused control problems over the course of his career due to overthrowing and an inconsistent release point—the main reason that his career BB/9 rate is nearly 4.0. Those same mechanics have made him very effective against left-handed hitters, though. For his career, he has roughly a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against fellow lefties, as opposed to an almost 1:1 ratio against right-handers.

Kim's fastball has been somewhat erratic, owing to the injuries that he has sustained over the course of his career. Generally speaking, it ranges from the high-80s to the low-90s, but can be erratic. Tracking speeds based on broadcast velocities in 2013, Clint Hulsey observed that Kim lost the zip on his fastball rather quickly, and that the pitch often dropped down into the mid-80s by mid-game. In 2014, with his injuries in the rear-view mirror, Kim's fastball velocity was clocked as high as 95 mph, generally sitting a few miles per hour slower.

After his fastball, Kim's pitch repertoire is fairly limited. By a large margin, his slider is his best off-speed pitch, an offering called "a big league slider" by an MLB scout. Sitting in the low-to-mid-80s, the pitch has good sweeping action, with more horizontal movement than vertical. His changeup features about 10-15 mph of speed differential from his fastball when both pitches are working, but does not feature much movement. According to an MLB scout who spoke with Yonhap News, "It's difficult for a lefty to pitch in MLB without much of a changeup...It's Kim's worst pitch."

At the beginning of the year, Kim expressed interest in playing abroad. The news was made official at the end of October, with the SK Wyverns announcing to the world that they would indeed be posting their left-hander. In the press conference, Kim stated that he is looking forward to playing baseball in the United States, a lifelong dream. "It doesn't matter what my role will be," he said. "Whatever the team feels is the right job for me, I think I will be able to do it. I am always ready. I want to see if I can fool them with breaking pitches out of the zone, or if I can overpower them with my fastballs. I don't think I should have trouble throwing fastballs and sliders in the majors. I will need to work on other pitches and will try to get help from coaches and teammates." He added, "I've lost some sleep thinking about how I am going to make adjustments off the field. Everything will be different, from food to language. I will be around some famous players that I know, but they don't know me. I am going to have to get along with them, too. I think I will be feeling some pressure, trying to do my country proud, but it will be my destiny. I just hate losing and I am going to give everything I have."

When asked, a Yankees scout in Asia stated that it would be a stretch for Kim to be posted for $10-$12 million. While I certainly can't claim to have any insider information, that amount seems right to me that amount seems about right to me only if it represents around the maximum most teams would be willing to spend, not a median range or a minimum bid. Like fellow KBO veteran lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kim was one of the dominant pitchers in Korea in the late-2000s; but since then, he has had too many issues for me to believe that an MLB team would be comfortable paying that much for the rights to negotiate with him. Simply put, he has too spotty a track record and too many questions surrounding him, and simply possesses inferior stuff.

One of the many questions regarding the southpaw is what his role would be in the U.S. Because he has been a starting pitcher all of his career thus far, he might be used as a starting pitcher. Because of his injury history, generally underwhelming numbers and stuff, and sharp platoon splits, he might be used as a relief pitcher. Kim's role will obviously have a large impact on how high his posting fee will be and how large his contract might be. It is extremely unlikely that either the Wyverns or Kim himself will make as much if the southpaw is viewed as a relief pitcher, rather than a starting pitcher, by the MLB establishment. "Kim is MLB ready," a scout stated. "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."