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The Cardinals are Finalizing a Deal with Kwang-Hyun Kim. Who is he?

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What do we know about the newest Cardinal, and where does he fit?

BASEBALL-KOR-CAN Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

The Cardinals have a deal in place with Kwang-Hyun Kim, a left-handed pitcher for the SK Wyverns in the KBO League. The amount is currently unknown, but Derrick Goold speculates that it will be close to recent $5M/2 years or $9M/3 year contracts. It’s hard to know much about Kim, but there are some nuggets of info out there. Some sources see him as a fifth starter/swingman type (more on that later), while others see him as a multi-inning lefty reliever. Either way, he fills a need for the Cardinals. Let’s take a look at Kim and what his presence means for the Cardinals in 2020.

Kim was posted to MLB previously when the Padres won the bidding for negotiation rights following the 2014 season. However, negotiations ended without an agreement and Kim returned to the Wyverns. He missed all of 2017 after Tommy John surgery. He returned posting the best walk rates of his career, walking just 4.8% of hitters faced in 2019. For comparison, his walk rate from 2012-2016 was 9.7%. He has also racked up strikeouts at a higher rate- 23.1% over the last two seasons compared to 19.5% from 2012-2016. You can see his full stats here.

He has dampened the production of opposing hitters in recent years, yielding just a .653 OPS against in 2018 and .643 in 2019. It was .720 in the season before his Tommy John. In fairness, I don’t have sacrifice hits or fly data available, so that OPS doesn’t include those figures. With that caveat, here’s how his wOBA and woBACON have progressed:

Kwang-Hyun Kim, wOBA and wOBACON

Year wOBA woBACON
Year wOBA woBACON
2013 0.331 0.426
2014 0.328 0.430
2015 0.315 0.417
2016 0.321 0.414
2018 0.289 0.384
2019 0.288 0.378

You’ve probably seen the FanGraphs scouting report on him, but he’s #41 here on their top 50 free agents in case you haven’t. What’s interesting is that Eric Longenhagen points out that Kim has become less athletic following his surgery, with less balance over his blocking leg and a lowered arm slot. Longenhagen also posted two great side-by-side images of what Kim used to be compared to what he is now (disregard the Cole Hamels precursor):

Sung Min Kim, a former FanGraphs writer and current KBO employee with the Lotte Giants (meaning he potentially gets to take a train to Busan every day, though hopefully less eventful than this depiction), has a great deal of info about his repertoire. He identifies Kim’s secondary offerings as a likely culprit for his 2018-2019 success:

Sung Min Kim also has footage of his curveball:

And you can see his splitter at the end of this sequence:

And finally, the slider- from 2018- that Longenhagen refers to as “nasty” and “tilt-a-whirl”:

Reports on his velocity have him sitting in the low 90s on his fastball, and Longenhagen lists his secondary offerings as “average or below” with a total projection of a fifth starter/swingman.

What does it mean for the Cardinals?

There’s an obvious utility for the Cardinals. Kim supplies them with another alternative if Carlos Martinez is unable to rejoin the starting rotation. Unlike the other alternatives, he’s left-handed and has a bit more top-level experience, even if it is in the KBO instead of Major League Baseball. If Martinez can rejoin the rotation, Kim can slot easily into a long relief role. Even if Martinez is ready, the Cardinals will likely need someone to absorb additional starts due to injuries or performance issues in the rotation throughout the season. There are many candidates, and Kim gives them a left-handed option.

Given the (apparent) strength of his slider, it could be interesting to see Kim morph into an Andrew Miller/Brad Hand/Jake Diekman type of lefty reliever, flinging sliders at hitters 45% of the time or more. I can’t find his usage rates in the KBO (one of our other writers may have this later in the week), so it’s possible he’s already using it a great deal.

There’s always risk when importing a pitcher from another league. That’s true even for traditional minor league routes, and doubly so with Japan and Korea. Major League equivalency rates only take you so far, which puts an additional importance on scouting. In the Cardinals case, that’s generally a good sign. They’ve brought in Miles Mikolas and Seung-Hwan Oh in recent years with plenty of success, which bodes well for Kim.

Kwang-Hyun Kim isn’t a heavy duty move on par with the Paul Goldschmidt trade, but it’s a maintenance move nonetheless- one that every team needs to make this time of year.