AnalysisNL Central

The Curious Case of Kwang Hyun Kim

The acquisition of starter-turned-closer-turned-starter Kwang Hyun Kim by the St. Louis Cardinals was a prodigious shot in the arm to an otherwise lackluster ballclub in 2020. Riding high off Jack Flaherty’s magical second half and a freshly re-signed Adam Wainwright in 2019, it’s not that fans failed to appreciate the signing of the Korean superstar, but quickly overlooked the unassuming Kim in anticipation of another season of Flaherty dominance, accompanied by a cautiously promising offense. However, a regression from Jack and an offense that finished no higher than fourteenth among its competition in any relevant offensive statistic (AVG, OBP, SLG, wRC+, wOBA, BABIP; basically anything that even infinitesimally measures the offense of a baseball team) and thirteenth in WAR forced the Best Fans in Baseball to turn their attention to grassier knolls: the wonderful fluke that is Kwang Hyun Kim. 

Now, I don’t use the term fluke to undercut Kim’s recent achievements; his long-term performance certainly can’t be questioned. Kim was a mainstay in the KBO League, pitching to a career 3.27 ERA over 12 years, taking home the ERA title, leading in strikeouts, and winning KBO MVP in 2008, just one dominant year of many. His success isn’t relegated to the decade before last, either. Kim posted a 2.51 ERA over 190 innings in 2019, just one short year ago. No, Kim is the real deal. When I say “fluke”, I am referring to his absolutely ridiculous 2020 inaugural MLB season with the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Before we take a look at Kim’s statline, it’s important to recall that despite starting for over a decade in the KBO, he was quickly moved to the closer role to fill the void that the opted-out, still-rehabbing from Tommy John, Type 1 diabetic Jordan Hicks created. Despite GM John Mozeliak’s best-laid plans, losing 40% of his starting rotation (Miles Mikolas to forearm afflictions, Carlos Martinez to COVID) forced him to insert Kim into a role that the Korean All-Star was probably more comfortable with anyway. So, after appearing in just one game as a reliever, Kim made his debut as a starting pitcher, then proceeded to have himself a year. 

Kwang Hyun Kim posted a 1.62 ERA, ERA- of 37, and WHIP of 1.03 in eight games, 39 innings pitched, with seven of those games being starts, per Fangraphs. That’s good for an MLB-leading ERA, a second place finish in ERA- behind the exemplary Shane Bieber, and 25th overall in WHIP, among pitchers with minimum thirty innings pitched. Now, while 39 innings isn’t even half of the workload of someone like Lance Lynn (led the majors with 84 IP) or Kyle Hendricks (third with 81.1 IP), it’s on par for St. Louis’ pitching staff. 39 innings puts Kim tied for third on the team in IP, with Adam Wainwright leading the club (65.2 IP), Jack Flaherty (40.1 IP) barely edging Kim out, and Dakota Hudson in parity (39 IP). St. Louis starters were not going particularly deep into games, and manager Mike Shildt was comfortable handing games over to a distinguished bullpen, so while Kim may not have stood out as a innings eater among major league starters, within his own team he was keeping pace with his peers.

Now, to address why this season was a fluke. With a FIP of 3.88, xFIP of 4.52, and xERA of 3.83, every predictive statistic on Fangraphs and Statcast foretold that Kim should have had a mediocre season, not a mystical one. He certainly benefited from one of the most capable defenses in baseball (with the Cardinals leading teams in DRS and clocking in at number seven in Def), but that still doesn’t account for his brilliance. So, what was the secret to Kim’s transcendent season? 

It must be overpowering velocity or spin, right? Blowing heaters past sluggish batters or buckling knees with mind-boggling breaking balls. Well, no. Kim’s four-seam fastball averages at 89.9 mph per Statcast, a few ticks below the Major League four-seam average of 92.8 mph in 2020 (among pitchers with minimum 30 innings pitched). Every single one of his pitches possesses less vertical and horizontal than the typical MLB pitch, and features less spin, too. So, he isn’t fooling hitters with especially nasty secondary pitches. Kim is in the bottom 4% of pitchers in whiff rate, and his 5.54 K/9 puts him 152 out of 158 in pitchers with a minimum of 30 innings thrown; nearly dead last. Kim isn’t striking out the world, bending unhittable offspeed pitches, or delivering devastating breaking stuff, some of the typical methods in which the most successful pitchers earn their paycheck.

The answer to Kim’s astounding performance is simple: the man is a magician at restricting hard, squared-up barrels while getting batters to induce down pillow-soft, ground ball contact. Exactly 50% of the time, Kim is getting opponents to hit into the ground, good for a BABIP of .217, eleventh overall in the bigs. Batters’ average exit velocity off Kim is only 87.1, similar to the fellow KBO import Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Blue Jays and the White Sox’ Lucas Giolito, the owner of the 304th no-hitter in MLB history. Accompanied by a barrel rate of a paltry 4.2% and a hard hit rate in the top 15% of the league, Kim refuses to let batters square him up.

This pitch-to-contact style should lend itself to more balls being put in play, and thus more opportunities for batters, yet Kim defied this tendency. The discrepancy lies in Kim’s plus command. Kim keeps the ball at the farthest reaches of the zone, with 45% of his pitches catching the black, exceeding the league average of 39%. With a BB/9 of 2.77 (far below the MLB mean of 3.54) and a nice HR/9 of 0.69, Kim rarely allows a free pass and the long ball seldom hurts him. Kim’s unique delivery and near-perfect tunneling allow for his timing and deception to pause the hitter long enough to reduce hard contact. 

Utilizing well-placed fastballs half of the time, occasional slow breaking balls to interfere with a batter’s timing, a hitch in his delivery, well-tunneled pitches, excellent command, and a little bit of Cardinal’s devil magic, Kim somehow had himself a sixty-game season that, if maintained throughout a typical length season, would place him in the conversation for Cy Young. Unfortunately, Kim’s 2020 was unsustainable and over time regression certainly would’ve closed its cold, ERA-ballooning maw around the southpaw.

But, just for this moment, while Harrison Bader flails at sliders out of the zone, Carlos Martinez has a negative WAR, and too many ex-Cardinal prospects to count mash their teams to postseason glory, allow St. Louis to collectively hoist this thirty-two-year-old South Korean man on its shoulders.

At least until John Mozeliak re-signs Yadier Molina in the off-season and Missouri suffers mass hysteria. 

Featured Photo: St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) / Twitter

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