As you’d expect from the team with the most losses in the majors, the shortcoming of the pitching staff outweighed its strengths by a significant margin. It lacked depth and was often forced to use less than desirable options. In the end, the staff ranked 20th in the majors by fWAR, 21st by strikeouts per nine innings, and 27th by earned run average.
True, the strength of the Tigers rebuild has always been their impressive group of pitching prospects. Help is on the way, but unfortunately, the failure rate among even the best minor league pitchers is well-documented. Therefore, Detroit cannot necessarily count on internal reinforcements alone if they intend to improve to any significant degree at some point in the near future.
One player they could turn to from outside the organization is LHP Kwang-hyun Kim.
Who is Kwang-hyun Kim?
Still relatively young at 31, Kim has been pitching at Korea’s highest level of competition since he was a teenager and has put in 1673 2⁄3 innings. That’s not bad mileage for a starter who’s been around since 2007. He’s fought through multiple seasons abbreviated thanks to injury — including a 2010 stroke — but has been mostly healthy in recent years. Pitching a full slate of games in 2019, he finished the season with 190 1⁄3 innings pitched and a 2.51 ERA, both of which were third-best in the KBO.
Naturally, being one of the top pitchers in Korea, the lefty has drawn interest from major league teams. The interest is mutual; Kim has stated his desire to play stateside. Oddly enough, though, he’s had two opportunities to come to the major leagues (2014 and 2016), but nothing came of that. While he is currently under contract with the SK Wyverns for another year, the team is reportedly “weighing its options” and may choose to post Kim this offseason in order to profit from his inevitable departure.
Detroit has had little involvement in the Asian markets over the course of both General Manager Al Avila’s tenure and that of his predecessor. Kim also feels just a little long in the tooth for a rebuilding team to take a chance on. So on the surface, it seems unlikely that the Tigers would be a part of the bidding. That may change, though. Scouts from the Tigers have been spotted at his starts, indicating at least some level of interest on the part of the organization.
What does the Korean native bring to the table?
Through the bulk of his career, Kim’s favored pitch has been a slider that positively devastates inferior hitting. It ranges from a softer version that registers in the low 80’s and can morph into a harder, cutter-ish variant. The harder version can run into the high 80’s, which is very close to his fastball’s velocity range. “Due to his very high release point, the pitch looks like it has a pretty big vertical break,” wrote Sung-Min Kim for Beyond the Box Score. “Even when hitters make contact, most of the time it ends up being a grounder since they only manage to get the top part of the ball.”
He’s also featured a slow curve throughout his career, and while it has often been assigned a lower status to his slider, he’s recently made significant improvements to the pitch. Take a look at these curveballs he threw during a no-decision against the NC Dinos last spring:
One of the major concerns that made teams skittish about Kim when he was posted last time was that he lacked a distinct third pitch to keep hitters at bay. He addressed that concern with the improvement of his curveball. He addressed that concern twice over with the development of a splitter. He throws it in a similar velocity range as his slider and it will probably play in the majors but is more useful as a “second look” offering than a strikeout pitch.
While he will occasionally show hitters a changeup with a bit of arm-side movement, the splitter functions the way most pitchers use their change and keeps hitter off his other offerings.
The biggest cause for concern regarding Kim’s potential transition to the MLB is his mediocre fastball. The pitch has never been a major plus for him, consistently being clocked from 91-93 miles per hour since he was a high schooler. As a lefty, that’s a perfectly workable velocity range. However, an unextraordinary fastball leads to concerns that advanced hitters may be able to sit on his breaking stuff and feast on mistakes.
Kim utilizes a complex and somewhat violent delivery, which is toned down a bit in the videos above. He comes set at the waist but delivers from a nearly over-the-top position, which is particularly tough on lefties and appears to give his fastball some quality riding action. The deception in his delivery comes from more than simply hiding the ball. Instead, his follow through post-release varies from pitch to pitch and, at its most complex, looks like a flailing tangle of limbs punctuated here and there by elbows and knees.
That’s a two-edged sword, however, and is likely the cause of the second major concern about his viability as a starter - command. He’s cut down on walks since being posted in 2014, but he still struggles at times to hit his spots, missing high most often. Major league hitters will punish hung pitches from a pitcher with his low-octane fastball. That combination of solid but not overpowering stuff and average-at-best command limits his ceiling.
However, despite his flaws, the Wyverns’ ace should be able to hold down a place at the back end of major league rotation. Usable depth is a big part of what the Tigers need right now as they wait for their top prospects to ripen, and that’s precisely what Kim should provide. He’s not going to burst on the scene, but on the other hand, he’s also unlikely to cost the kind of money many Asian imports command.
The end game here would probably be a two step process in which the Tigers acquire Kim, and thus allow themselves more leeway to deal from their pitching prospect depth to acquire a bat or two. That’s a more complex series of events required than the Tigers usually prefer to make such an acquisition a benefit to the organization overall.