Three games ago in the Cardinals schedule, the Cardinals had a reason to keep Kwang-Hyun Kim out of the MLB rotation. Three games ago was Sunday, July 26th, and the Cardinals lost the third game of their first series of the year against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Miles Mikolas was, we thought, healthy. And really I guess I could say the same thing about Carlos Martinez at the same time too.
But now, there is no reason to leave him out of the rotation and the Cardinals agree with me. After a grand total of one game in the bullpen, the Cardinals are moving him back to the rotation to replace Carlos Martinez. And it’s probably safe to assume that when Martinez gets healthy from COVID, that he’ll remain in the rotation at the expense of Daniel Poncedeleon. Of course, the performances of both pitchers may change things: Martinez may very well go back to the bullpen.
Most of us watched Kim pitch one inning in the bullpen, but pitching in the bullpen is a very different thing than the rotation and I’ve already forgotten what he looked like in his debut. He looked hittable, but it was one game. I’m reminded of another Cardinal debut, one that isn’t really comparable, but was also a Korean transport with many years of success before coming here. Seung-Hwan Oh, back in 2016, pitched a scoreless inning with two walks and two strikeouts. He walked two batters two appearances later, and then just 14 the rest of the year.
Which is just to say that Oh needed to pitch a few games in order to shake off his rustiness, his nervousness, or maybe he just landed on the random wheel that made him not sharp two of his first three days. I suspect two of his first three appearances involving two walks is not a coincidence, and he was eager to prove himself. Basically, we can learn pretty much nothing from his first appearance, especially since he’s moving to the rotation.
What does the starter version of Kim look like? I’ll reference my VEB colleague A.E. Schafer, who wrote up a scouting report back in December on Kim. If you’re interested, I’d encourage you to read that entire post first. If you’re running low on time, I’ll try to summarize his conclusions best I can. He features a fastball that sits between 90-93 and can reach 95. He has a slider that will be anywhere between 82 and 88 mph, with him changing his speed at will. He also features a loopy mid-70s curveball and average looking 83 mph forkball. He also has an average splitter that Schafer thinks catches too much of the plate, but is average.
His most similar pitcher is Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has a changeup that is better than the splitter, but Kim’s slider is better than Ryu’s curveball, so he thinks that roughly evens out. Actually, he thinks the slider is so absurdly good that he can lean on it at any time and didn’t throw it enough in the KBO. The slider works particularly well with the fastball, as they can look similar coming out of the hand.
So basically, you have a primarily fastball-slider pitcher who has three other pitches to keep hitters off-balance. With the fastball-slider dominance, you can understand the desire to put him in the bullpen, as they appear to easily be his two best options. But his other pitches seem average as well and if you have at least five average pitches, you belong in the rotation. And for what it’s worth, in his first appearance, he threw a fastball or slider 90% of the time. I assume it won’t be like that in the rotation.
So now that I’ve reminded everyone of his pitches (because of course you all already read the scouting report back in December, being regular readers), what about his actual performance? On this one at least, I can only really rely on projections. With most players, projections are the best bet, but a player coming from the KBO presents me with no other choice.
Prior to the 2020 season, ZiPS wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic fan, but they foresaw an above average pitcher. In a not quite full season (26 GS), his median projection was 2.2 WAR. Which tied Mikolas for the second best WAR projection from any starter on the Cardinals roster. Martinez wasn’t projected as a starter although it would have been better than him and it was easily better than Dakota Hudson, who pitched more innings in his projection, and Adam Wainwright, who was more than a win below him. Point being: he should have been planned in the rotation, even with a healthy Mikolas.
Kim’s last two seasons, which saw him return from Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2017 season, are a different pitcher than before the surgery. His career high K% was 23 and K/9 was 8.50 prior to 2017, and both numbers came in 2010. After 2010, five of his next six seasons came with a lower than 20% K rate. In 2018, he immediately had a career high in both K% (23.5%) and K/9 (8.61) and in his next season, he was close enough to those numbers to make you think it wasn’t a fluke. (22.9% and 8.50)
Oddly enough, with the higher strikeout numbers also came less walks. From 2010 to 2014, he had a 10+ BB%. He managed to cut it down to 8.8% and 7% in the two years prior to surgery, but after the surgery he walked even less than that with a 5.4 BB% and 4.8% in 2018 and 2019. Because of less home runs allowed in 2019 and less walks, he had a career low FIP in 2019. And that’s where the Cardinals come in.
Steamer and ZiPS interpret his K/BB numbers differently. Steamer largely buys into the strikeout change, with a projected 22.5 K% in the MLB. ZiPS doesn’t really, projecting him to fall under 20% again. To be fair, the 19.5% projection would still be better than his strikeout numbers prior to Tommy John in most seasons, although the two seasons immediately preceding the TJ are better than that as well. The two projection systems are in agreement on his walks though: 6.5% from Steamer, 6.3% from ZiPS.
Both projection systems also happen to basically agree on homers (1.24 and 1.27), so it goes without saying that the system projecting him to strike out more batters thinks he’ll have the better FIP. But, it also must be said that Steamer, even before the season, had him pitching to some guys out of the bullpen. So I would guess both systems agree more than disagree on Kim, as you would largely expect a pitcher in the bullpen to strike out more than in the rotation.
Because his entire projection is in the rotation for ZiPS and is not for Steamer, I’d be more inclined to use his ZiPS numbers. I suspect his Steamer numbers of a 4.07 FIP would go down if they had him pitch only in the rotation. For ZiPS, he has an FIP projection of 4.30. After his one appearance, ZiPS has a rest of season projection of... 4.29. Which may seem odd, but he neither walked a guy, struck out a guy, or allowed a home run, which caused all three numbers to go down for the RoS projection, and two out of three being lower is a positive result overall. So there’s a weird quirk of rest of season projections. (I assume the .400 BABIP and 60 GB% also helped)
So what to expect from Kim? Well expect an above average pitcher for one. He may need to be eased into the rotation. But it may be less of a difficult transition than we think. The Cardinals knew about Martinez last Friday at the least, and they probably had decided on Kim well before the announcement was made yesterday. If I had to guess, Kim probably threw 30-50 pitches last week as soon as they decided and either today or yesterday, he probably increased that to 50+ pitches. Assuming he pitches either fourth or fifth in line when the Cards come back, he should be ready to throw close to 80 pitches in his first start. There’s one benefit of having a week of games cancelled.
Or maybe I’m wrong and they didn’t do any of that. I would be very surprised if he hasn’t already thrown over 50 pitches in preparation to start, but it wouldn’t shock me if they don’t think he’s ready for 80 pitches right away. Whatever his pitch count shall be, I think it will be high enough that 5 innings is possible, although difficult. So that’s going to be my hope for his first start and after that, well hopefully my expectations will go higher and higher based on his performance.