I’ma be real with you: I had never heard of Kwang-Hyun Kim until about 9pm on Monday night, when Korean baseball writer Jeeho Yoo broke the news (in English) that Kim was in St. Louis for a physical.
Since then, a variety of writers - both American and Korean - have weighed in, and “KK” himself (as he likes to be called) has even spoken to the media in St. Louis. So what have we learned?
Starter or Reliever?
KK has been a starter in Korea, but given the needs of the Cardinals, perceptions of his stuff and questions about translation between the leagues, it’s unclear if Mo & Friends view him more as a starter or a reliever.
When asked for his preference, KK said “The best case scenario for me would be to be a starting pitcher. But first and foremost, I’ll try to be a player that the team needs. Whatever the team wants me to do, I’ll do the best I can.” (Translation again via Jeeho Yoo.)
John Mozeliak, ever on-brand, was a bit cagey. He referred to KK as someone who “could start,” but went on to say that the lefty provided a lot of value regardless of his ultimate role.
I reached out to Dan Kurtz, who covers Korean Baseball for My KBO, for his thoughts. He’s optimistic that KK will remain a starter, but agrees the pen is a possibility.
Kim Kwang-hyun is one of the top pitchers in the KBO. He has MLB quality stuff, looking forward to see how his stuff works in MLB (especially his slider). I’d place him in the rotation to begin, but can also see him being a situational guy out of the ‘pen.
To put KK in some context, I asked Kurtz to compare him to Josh Lindblom - the KBO pitcher recently signed by the Pirates and expected to slot into their rotation.
For 2019, I’d go Lindblom then maybe Yang Hyun-jong and then Kim. Lindblom had an excellent year, plus already know what its like to pitch in MLB. I think that will help Lindblom do well this season. Kim will need help transitioning on and off the field to life here in the US and MLB. Kim, Yang and Lindblom were the top pitchers for past few seasons in KBO.
John LaRue did a great job yesterday of covering the stats we have on KK from Korea, as well as some of the initial thoughts on his stuff. I’m going to overlap a bit here, but you should absolutely read John’s full post.
Everyone agrees that Kim has an excellent, Major League quality, wipeout slider. Beyond that, opinions vary a bit.
Most outlets have described Kim’s fastball as “low 90s.” Yoo reports that KK’s fastball averaged 91.4mph, which is about 2 mph below MLB average. At the same time, it’s also been reported that he can touch 95, and in this sequence from former Fangraphs writer Sung Min Kim, KK goes 93 and 94mph before getting the strikeout with a nasty 80mph splitter.
93 mph fastball - 94 mph fastball - 80 mph splitter for a K pic.twitter.com/pC6a6cAgj4— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) July 6, 2019
So while KK’s fastball has most often been thrown in the low 90s, it’s clear he can crank it up, and especially if he winds up in the bullpen, I expect he would. But I also wonder if KK might increase his fastball speed as a starter as well. Velocities in Korea are not as high on-average, so it’s very possible that KK has set the cruise control a bit lower than what he’s capable of based on that environment.
In addition to the fastball and the slider, Kim throws that splitter/changeup pictured above and a curveball. Reports on those secondary offerings are again, a bit mixed, though Fangraphs Eric Longenhagen called them all “average or below.”
Why St. Louis?
The Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel asked KK why he chose the Cardinals, which - let’s be clear - is a dumb question. The answer is always money, or at least mostly-money, but players are expected to invent some more noble motivation. As you may recall, Mike Hampton was drawn to Denver by the excellent school system.
But in KK’s case, he actually offered an extremely charming response.
“I chose to sign with the Cardinals because this is the most prestigious club in the National League,” Kim said (as translated by Jeeho Yoo). “I like that the city of St. Louis is clean and quiet, and this is a grand stadium.”
Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Kim.
KK also said that he had spoken to The Final Boss himself, Mr. Seung-hwan Oh, who reported that the Cardinals was the best franchise he played for in America. That’s nice to hear, and we fans can take pride in that... although it’s worth noting that Oh’s other experiences were with the Rockies and the Blue Jays.
During the press conference, KK’s Korean Agent Jerry Kim served as his translator - a job that Jerry Kim clearly struggled a bit at and was very apologetic about afterwards. But once he joins the team, KK will need a full-time translator, and that of course sparked some fans to dream of reuniting with Oh’s translator and local folk hero Eugene Koo.
As usual, Fox Sports Midwest’s intrepid reporter Jim Hayes got to the bottom of that possibility:
For those asking about the great Eugene Koo;— Jim Hayes (@TheCatOnFox) December 18, 2019
He has accepted a position with the KIA Tigers of the KBO and will be the interpreter for new Manager Matt Williams this season. Eugene says he misses Cardinal fans and looks forward to visiting the STL in the future. #Journalism
But while Eugene may not return, Jeeho Yoo - the man who broke Kim’s story in English and provided more clear translation of his press conference comments - could be the hero we need.
If #STLCardinals can match my current salary, (which is not much) I think I can be a serviceable translator for LHP Kwang-Hyun Kim— Jeeho Yoo (@Jeeho_1) December 17, 2019