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Why Was Kwang-Hyun Kim Good in 2020?

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game One Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As MLB teams increasingly value things like velocity, spin rate, and whiff rate, Kwang-Hyun Kim succeeded last season despite being among the worst qualified pitchers in all of those things. His fastball and curveball spin rates were both well below average, with his curveball spin rate putting him in just the 9th percentile. Additionally, his fastball averaged just 89.9 mph. Therefore, it is not surprising that Kim ranked in just the 4th percentile in whiff rate (18.3%) and the 8th percentile in strikeout rate (15.6%).

Kim is certainly not the embodiment of the modern, high spin, high velocity pitcher. Despite this, he was still successful in 2020. The right-hander posted a 1.62 ERA and a 3.88 FIP to go with a 3.81 xERA and 4.52 xFIP. It is clear that Kim will not repeat his ERA next season, as he posted just a .217 BABIP and 86.6% left on base rate. Both of these numbers are unsustainable as they were both career bests for the 32-year-old. However, while he is likely to regress in terms of run prevention, there is no reason that he cannot maintain his solid FIP and give good, back-end of the rotation production.

Kim’s low strikeout rate is unlikely to improve. However, Kim is very good at preventing walks and allowing weak contact. Kim walked just 7.8% of the batters he faced last season (60th percentile) while also allowing an average exit velocity of 87.1 mph (71st percentile) and a barrel rate of just 4.2% (84th percentile). Additionally, Kim posted a 50% groundball rate.

Therefore, it is clear that Kim has success by limiting walks and hard contact. However, Kim’s lack of velocity and movement make it easier to hit his pitches; therefore, it is necessary that he commands his pitches well and keeps them away from the heart of the plate.

This is exactly what he does. Over half of Kim’s pitches (52%) were thrown out of the zone, with the majority of those pitches coming in the lower half. Additionally, just 27% of his pitches were thrown in the middle regions (the regions that make a plus sign in the strike zone). This is how Kim is able to find success despite lacking swing-and-miss stuff. He is able to throw the ball in the regions around the strike zone without walking anybody. This allows him to limit the amount of hard contact that he allows, which is especially good for Kim since he allows so much contact.

Additionally, Kim had the most success in the region where he threw the most pitches. In the region where Kim threw 22% of his pitches, he allowed just a 75.8 mph exit velocity and just a .157 xWOBA to go with a 71% groundball rate.

Kim does a good job of pitching to his strengths. He does not have even average velocity, spin, or movement on any of his pitches, so he needs to limit his walks and hit his spots. This is something that he does very well, but it is also something that gives him a small margin for error. It is extremely unlikely that Kim will repeat his run prevention success in 2021, but he can still be a solid fourth/fifth starter if he can continue to command his pitches around the strike zone and in the corners. However, whenever he slips up, he is likely to get hit hard, so he will need to continue showing strong command if he wants to have success.

Obviously, this makes him riskier than a pitcher with elite stuff. However, for a pitcher making just $4 million per year, Kim offers plenty of production and should more than outperform his contract.