Kwang-Hyun Kim
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Mets have turned to Korea, with Kwang-Hyun Kim, in an effort to potentially replace free agent Zack Wheeler.

Kyle Newman

On Nov. 22, the SK Wyverns posted their ace pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim. That means that over the next 30 days, all 30 teams in MLB are able to negotiate a contract with Kim and the Wyverns will get a percentage of the money owed contract as a posting fee.

The 31-year old lefty has already drawn interest from five teams, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. The New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals have all shown interest.

Kim throws a four-pitch mix but really relies on two pitches. He Has a good fastball that sits low-to-mid 90s and when he controls it well, it’s an above-average pitch. Kim Also throws a devastating slider. The pitch is plus and is a near-guaranteed out-pitch in the MLB. That’s especially true if Kim comes out of the bullpen as a multi-inning reliever.

Kim also throws a curveball and a forkball. Both pitches are fringe-average to average, though the forkball could be an interesting pitch in MLB. Not many pitchers throw the pitch, so that unfamiliarity could allow the pitch to play up. Similar to Daisuke Matsuzaka’s gyroball when he came over.

Scouts are split on Kim’s best role in the majors. Some believe he would be best served as a back-end of the rotation starter. His expected numbers in the majors have been compared to Mets pitcher Steven Matz in that role.

Others believe his best use will be out of the bullpen. Many who see him in this role imagine him in the Andrew Miller role—a lefty with a good fastball and a devastating slider who can pitch multiple innings. It would certainly be tempting to put him that role considering how good his fastball and slider mix is compared to how poor his other two pitches are.

Kim could fit either role with the Mets. If they believe he can be a starter, he would slot in as the team’s fifth starter. If they think he can be a lights-out multi-inning reliever, he fills Seth Lugo‘s spot in the bullpen and the spin master moves into the rotation. Either way, the Mets are filling their fifth starter spot.

That’s a general overview of Kim and his stuff, but questions still remain. Who is he? How well has he done in Korea? What’s his injury history?

Straight out of High School

Kwang-Hyun Kim was drafted in 2007 by the SK Wyverns. Unlike America, the KBO doesn’t have a minor league system. That means young players are often asked to take on a large role for their team, Kim was no different.

He made his debut at just 18-years old as a reliever. It didn’t take long for him to work his way into the starting rotation, though. He ended up making 13 starts his rookie year. He threw 77 innings in total and pitched to a 3.62 ERA, 6.1 K/9, and 4.8 BB/9. It was a successful if unspectacular rookie year.

In his second year, he exploded. At just 19-years old, Kim established himself as one of the best pitchers in Korea. In 2008, Kim posted a 2.39 ERA, 8.3 K/9, and 3.5 BB/9 in 162 innings. Among starting pitchers he was second in the league in ERA, led the league in strikeouts, and was second in WHIP. That is why Kim was named the KBO MVP in 2008; he also won the gold glove.

Kim followed up that year with another phenomenal one in 2009 and 2010. Both years, he posted ERAs of 2.80 or lower, and his strikeout numbers were among the best in Korea. It was easy to say that Kim at the age of just 21 was the best pitcher in Korea. That’s quite the statement because MLB Cy Young vote-getter Hyun-Jin Ryu was also in Korea at this time.

Both Kim and Ryu were easily ahead of the rest of the league. It was clear they were meant for bigger things. Then it all came crumbling down.

In 2011 and 2012, Kim dealt with injuries for the first time in his professional career. He failed to pitch 100 innings in both seasons and his ERA skyrocketed over four in both seasons.

He managed to stay healthier in 2013, but he clearly wasn’t the same pitcher. His ERA remained over four and his BB and K numbers were both well below his career averages to that point.

In 2014, Kim started to find himself again. He brought his ERA down to 3.42, but his K and BB numbers were still below his career averages. He just wasn’t the same guy. However, at 25-years old, after posting his best season in years Kim attempted to make his jump to MLB.

First Posting and Tommy John Surgery

The SK Wyverns posted Kim at his direction after the 2014 season. The bidding process for Kim was not a hotly-contested one. The San Diego Padres won the bidding with a bid of just $2 million. However, the Padres and Kim could not come to an agreement during their month-long window, which meant that Kim would have to return to Korea.

Kim saw similar results to his 2014 year in both 2015 and 2016. The biggest change was his declining walk rate. He was showing that he was able to change his pitching style and that his control was getting better.

In 2105 and 2016, Kim posted the best BB numbers of his career, while regaining his strikeout ability. Despite that, his ERA was back on the rise. he finished both years with an ERA above 3.50.

Despite getting better, Kim still wasn’t the elite pitcher he was in his younger days. He was now just another pitcher in the KBO.

Then came the most devastating news of Kim’s career. In 2017, Kim had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He would lose a whole season just as he was regaining his form. It looked like his MLB dream was over.

Post Tommy John surgery

Kim was lucky enough to recover from his Tommy John surgery. He was able to return to the Wyverns partway through the 2018 season and managed to throw 136 innings that year; and to the surprise of many he was an elite pitcher again.

In 2018, Kim’s ERA dropped to 2.98, he struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings and he walked just 2.0, the lowest mark of his career to that point. Kim was back among the elite pitchers in the KBO.

In 2019, now completely removed from his Tommy John Surgery Kim regained his younger form. He had a 2.51 ERA, 1.7 BB/9, and 8.5 K/9 in 190.1 innings. Kim’s ERA was third-lowest among starting pitchers and he had the second-most strikeouts in the league.

Whatever his previous injuries that broke Kim were, the Tommy John surgery fixed him. He returned to being an elite pitcher. Now he is looking to make the move to America and join the MLB again.

Kim will be 32-years old in July. However, he is in the best form he’s been in years. He also has less wear on his arm then most Korean pitchers due to his injury history and the year missed from Tommy John Surgery.

Kim’s age and injury history should limit his market and his asking price, which could make him a steal. Korean pitchers often transition well to MLB due to the incredibly offense heavy nature of the KBO. Meaning the elite pitchers in the KBO are often MLB quality pitchers.

Kim is likely to find himself as a mid-rotation starter to start his career. It’s unlikely he’ll sign with someone who wants to put him in the bullpen from the jump. However, don’t be surprised if he transitions to the bullpen shortly after joining his new team. He could be elite in that role and teams are always on the lookout for elite relievers. That’s especially true when they’ll likely come at seven million dollars or less a year like Kim is expected to make.

The New York Mets should be all over Kwang-Hyun Kim. He could be one of the steals of the offseason.

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