Kwang-Hyun (pronounced “Gwang-Hyun”) Kim is a left-handed starting pitcher for the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). The 2014 season marks his 8th year in the KBO. Kim has been one of premier lefty pitchers in South Korea since he entered the KBO in 2007. By winning the gold medal with the Korean national team at the 2014 Asian Games, Kim was awarded additional service time, meaning, he is eligible to sign with a foreign team via the Posting System during this off-season. During an interview prior to the start of the 2014 season, Kim expressed his intentions of playing abroad, preferably in the MLB rather than Japan.
Career in South Korea
Kim was born on July 22, 1988 (Age: 26) in Seoul, South Korea. He is tall with a slender frame, standing at 6’ 2” and weighing 183 lbs. He was selected by the SK Wyverns in the first round of the 2007 KBO draft out of An-San Technical High School. Kim has spent his entire career (2007-Present) with the Wyverns.
During his KBO career, he has won numerous awards including the 2008 MVP, 2008 Golden Glove, 2008 strikeout title, 2009 ERA title and two win titles (2008, 2010). He is also a three-time KBO All-Star (2008-10).
His success in the KBO led to his inclusion on the Korean national team in multiple occasions. In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Kim delivered two spectacular outings against the Japanese team (1.26 ERA, 14.1 IP, 10 H, 12 K) and led the Korean team to its first-ever gold medal. This gold medal was significant to Kim’s career, as it made him exempt from the two-year mandatory military service. Kim was also selected for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, 2010 Asian Games (withdrew before the tournament due to injury), and the 2014 Asian Games.
Below are Kim’s KBO career statistics:
- 2007: 3-7, 3.62 ERA, 20 G (13 GS), 77 IP, 80 H, 5 HR, 41 BB, 52 K, 1.571 WHIP
- 2008: 16-4, 2.39 ERA, 27 G (27 GS), 162 IP, 127 H, 9 HR, 63 BB, 150 K, 1.173 WHIP
- 2009: 12-2, 2.80 ERA, 21 G (21 GS), 138.1 IP, 121 H, 14 HR, 53 BB, 112 K, 1.258 WHIP
- 2010: 17-7, 2.37 ERA, 31 G (30 GS), 193.2 IP, 153 H, 13 HR, 84 BB, 183 K, 1.224 WHIP
- 2011: 4-6, 4.84 ERA, 17 G (14 GS), 74.1 IP, 70 H, 6 HR, 45 BB, 61 K, 1.547 WHIP
- 2012: 8-5, 4.30 ERA, 16 G (16 GS), 81.2 IP, 85 H, 9 HR, 36 BB, 65 K, 1.482 WHIP
- 2013: 10-9, 4.47 ERA, 25 G (22 GS), 133 IP, 128 H, 12 HR, 68 BB, 102 K, 1.474 WHIP
- 2014: 12-9, 3.39 ERA, 25 G (25 GS), 156.2 IP, 156 H, 10 HR, 71 BB, 131 K, 1.451 WHIP (as of September 30th)
- Career: 82-49, 3.29 ERA, 182 G (168 GS), 6 CG (2 SHO), 1016.2 IP, 920 H, 78 HR, 461 BB, 856 K, 1.358 WHIP
During his first season in the KBO, Kim struggled in the first half with a 4.69 ERA, but was able to bounce back with a 2.67 ERA in the second half. In 2008, he took the league by storm, and won the league MVP award, led the league in wins (16) and strikeouts (150). Kim continued to show improvements the following year by winning the ERA title (2.80), but was hampered by a wrist injury during the season. In 2010, Kim had another monster year, appearing in 31 games, and pitched a career-high 193.2 innings, which led the league. He also ranked 1st in wins (17) and 2nd in ERA (2.37) and strikeouts (183), only behind current L.A. Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu. Kim also led the Wyverns to the Korean Series title (World Series of the KBO), which was the team’s third title in four years.
After the 2010 season, Kim suffered from facial paralysis due to a cerebral infarction. Although he has since made a complete recovery, he was forced to miss half of the 2011 season and finished with career-low statistics in most pitching categories (4-6 record with a 4.84 ERA, in 74.1 IP in just 14 starts). The 2012 season did not get any better for Kim, who sat out the first two months of the season due to a shoulder injury and won only 8 games and just pitched 81.2 innings.
In 2013, Kim once again started off the season on the disabled list due to a shoulder injury. He returned mid-April and went on to make more than 20 starts, and won double-digit games for the first time in 3 years. However, he continued to struggle with his command (4.6 BB/9) and many were beginning to wonder whether Kim was ever going to regain his dominant form during the 2010 season.
After a strong off-season, Kim was named the opening day starter (first time in his career) for the Wyverns this season. With 10 games remaining in the season, he is holding a 12-9 record with a 3.39 ERA, 156.2 IP over 25 starts. It is important to note that this is the most Kim has pitched since 2010, and his ERA is under a 4 for the first time 4 years as well.
Kim’s fastball velocity generally sits between 88-91 mph, but is often erratic, and varies between 86-95 mph. As a tall overhanded southpaw, he has a high release point, which adds more velocity to his fastball. Kim is also famous for his dynamic pitching style with a high kick before his windup. His best pitch is his slider, which has both vertical and horizontal movements. One of his big weaknesses however, is his lack of control. Throughout his KBO career, he has allowed 4.1 base-on-balls per 9 innings pitched.
One Major League spoke of Kim, “He has big league stuff. Definitely a big league slider. But due to his control issues, throwing less than 50% of his pitches in the strike zone, I see his best fit as a major league matchup guy against left handed hitters. His K/BB ratio vs. left handed hitters is 3/1 as opposed to 1.2/1 against right handed hitters. Although he has the most amount of wins since 2010, his stuff has been how it’s been the past few years. BB/9, K/9, HR/9 are all about the same. Also injury history and command are a big red flag.”
He went on to say, “Kim’s raw stuff is electric. If he were a raw prospect with low mileage, he would be the best prospect in Asia. But he has injury history and he isn’t 21 years old. He can make big money by staying in Asia.”
Kim’s bullpen session during Spring Training 2014
Interest from MLB Teams
Despite his struggles and injuries in the past few seasons, Kim has been able to regain a high level of interest from various MLB teams this season, attracting several MLB scouts to his games. The list of teams include the Chicago Cubs, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks and the Baltimore Orioles.
Due to his battles with injury and a sub-par 2013 season, some reports suggest Kim may be transitioned into a reliever in the MLB. But Kim himself continues to express high hopes of being a starter. Kim’s struggles in recent years may force him to take a shorter deal at a lower price tag and prove himself upon coming to the MLB.
One MLB scout who watched Kim in June, pitching against Jung-Ho Kang, another top Korean MLB prospect, complimented him by saying, “it was impressive to see Kim keep balls low in the zone in a hitter-friendly park. He was great in throwing pitches inside to attack Kang’s weak points.” He added, “I was not fully impressed with his fastball velocity, but his slider was excellent.”
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 (also how much SK expects to receive in posting fees) 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 (currently playing for the AAA-affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles) would do, at least to this point.”
In his sophomore season in the MLB, Hyun-Jin Ryu had another stellar year, going 14-7, with a 3.55 ERA in 26 starts, as the Number 3 starter for the electric Dodgers rotation that also features Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Suk-Min Yoon on the other hand, struggled mightily in his first year in the U.S., after signing an incentive-laden three-year $5.75 million contract. Yoon had a disappointing 4-8 record, with a 5.74 ERA over 18 starts with Triple-A Norfolk. He was outrighted off the Orioles roster on August 30, 2014, and it is unclear whether he will return to the Orioles next season, or sign elsewhere. Many people are speculating that Yoon might return back to the KBO.
Despite different pitching styles and repertoires, Kim was once regarded as one of the best starters in the KBO alongside Ryu and Yoon. Compared to these two, Kim has allowed the most base-on-balls and has pitched the fewest amount of innings. Below are the KBO career statistics comparison of the three pitchers:
- Kwang-Hyun Kim (as of September 30)
- Career: 82-49, 3.29 ERA, 182 G (168 GS), 6 CG (2 SHO), 1016.2 IP, 856 K, 461 BB, 1.358 WHIP
- Per 9 innings: 8.1 H, 0.7 HR, 4.1 BB, 7.6 K
- Hyun-Jin Ryu
- Career: 98-52, 2.80 ERA, 190 G (180 GS), 27 CG (8 SHO), 1269 IP, 1238 K, 383 BB, 1.154 WHIP
- Per 9 innings: 7.7 H, 0.7 HR, 2.7 BB, 8.8 K
- Suk-Min Yoon
- Career: 73-59, 3.19 ERA, 303 G (136 GS), 11 CG (6 SHO), 1129 IP, 949 K, 345 BB, 1.198 WHIP
- Per 9 innings: 8.04 H, 0.6 HR, 2.8 BB, 7.6 K
Nevertheless, Ryu’s stellar performance with the Dodgers the past two seasons (28-15, 3.17 ERA, 56GS, 1.198 WHIP) has certainly influenced the way MLB scouts look at KBO prospects. Many MLB teams will take a close look at Kim’s control issues and injury history. The largest obstacle may come down to the posting fee, which will dictate whether or not the SK Wyverns part ways with their ace.
Photo Credit: sksports.net
Reference: baseball-reference.com, MyKBO.net, koreabaseball.com, sksports.net, naver.com, daum.net, koreajoongangdaily.joins.com, sport.chosun.com, sports.mk.co.kr, osen.mt.co.kr, sportsworldi.com, edaily.co.kr