Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mr. Kim, come on down

Byung-Hyun Kim is apparently your newest Pirate. Details are sketchy, but the world's most famous Korean submariner (beating out ROKS Chang Bogo) apparently got a major league deal, and will work out of the pen.

On an analytical level, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from him in 2008. He sucked on toast last year, but he hasn't spent the majority of a season in relief in five years, and he's got very unusual stuff and mechanics (as well as significant variations in the quality thereof). With a guy like him, you have to trust the reports from your scouts, because the past performance record may not mean much. This is a particular issue because of the environmental factors in play on his stat line. Kim spent '05 and '06 pitching in Colorado, where the thin air is hard on a guy with a big breaking ball, and then put in most of his '07 with the Marlins, home to the worst defense in the history of the universe. I exaggerate for effect, but not much. Florida had the second-worst DER in baseball last year, ahead of only their neighbors in Tampa. They earned it on merit: By my subjective judgment, a full 5/8 of the guys in their everyday lineup were stretched to the limit defensively at their 2007 position (Jacobs, Uggla, Ramirez, Cabrera, and Willingham, for those of you keeping score at home). As a result, all of the Marlins' pitchers look like crap when you eyeball their stat lines, even with the advantage of a favorable home park. Anyway, the Hardball Times shows a FIP and xFIP that are much better than his actual performance for both 2006 and 2007. The caveats there, of course, are that Kim's unusual characteristics might make him resistant to statistical modeling (since all projections are based around a set of shared assumptions about how pitchers "work", and those assumptions may not be accurate for a guy with his background, training methods, and skill set), and also that the adjusted numbers still aren't very good. Still, he misses a lot of bats, which gives us something that the staff didn't have last year, and a guy who's so hard to predict does have a significant amount of upside in the best-case scenario. We might find out that there's still some juice in his orange when we get him down to Florida.

On a fannish level, I like the move, because Kim's an interesting guy. First and foremost, sidewinders are fun to watch even when they don't pitch well, just because the delivery is so novel in the modern era. Kim's release point is extremely low even among the members of his exclusive club, making him one of the only guys capable of actually throwing a true rising fastball. He's also a genuinely unique personality: The black-belt son of a Tae Kwon Do instructor, who sleeps up to eighteen hours a day, and can drift off at the drop of a hat. There are all kinds of quirky human-interest stories about Kim all over the internet (with this magazine piece from ESPN being a good place to start). He may or may not succeed with the Pirates, but with his "different" nature and his Three True Outcomes style of pitching, at least he won't be boring.

The one cloud in the sky from my fan's perspective is the potential for clubhouse friction if Kuwata also manages to make the team. Historically, there isn't any great love lost between Japan and Korea, and that antipathy definitely extends onto the diamond. For example, Robert Whiting's great book "You Gotta Have Wa" has a story about former ML outfielder Richie Scheinblum, who spent two years in Japan. Scheinblum was having some trouble getting calls from Japanese umpires, but as an English-speaker in a foreign land he lacked any real means of communicating his displeasure. One of his teammates came to his rescue by promising to teach him a taunt that never failed, and soon, Scheinblum was mumbling "You lousy Korean" to the men in blue (and picking up substantial fines every time he did so). That was more than 30 years ago, but the two nations' feelings really haven't changed, as anyone who watched the WBC can tell you. Cross your fingers that both guys can look past the issue and act like professionals.


WilliamJPellas said...

To say that there is enduring hostility between Japan and Korea is to say that there was a minor problem on the Titanic. "Murderous hatred", "mutual loathing and contempt", and "undying enmity" would be some other phrases characteristic of the situation between most of the people of the two nations. But, that's what happens when you go conquering and pillaging your weaker neighbors, as Japan did in ruling Korea as a fascist fiefdom from 1904-1945. A war between the two of them today---well, three of them since there's both a North and a South Korea---would be incredibly destructive. Both Koreas are extremely well-armed considering their small size, and the South in particular is far advanced technologically.

Japanese fascism, by the way, is still very much alive and well. It never really went away after Japan lost in WWII; it merely went underground for the most part, and into various other dark corners of Japanese society, such as university bureaucracies.

But hey, they both love baseball! :-D

Anonymous said...

There's also the little problem of comfort women, which is the subject of a Japanese version of the holocaust denial industry. Yuk.


AdamBomb8 said...

I think this organization already has enough guys with 6+ ERA's, they don't need to bring more in from outside.

WilliamJPellas said...

A truly scary book for any interested parties is: "Japan Unbound", by John Nathan.

Anonymous said...


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dps569 said...

Interesting perspective. IIRC, Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park were in the same Dodger rotation for a couple years. I wonder how they got along? In our case, I would expect nothing but professionalism from Kuwata (if he somehow makes the team), and Kim will apparently be sleeping too much to cause any trouble for anyone.

I like the signing. When Kim was strictly a reliever, he was a very good reliever. And as noted, he'll at least be fun to watch.

WilliamJPellas said...

Speaking of Kuwata-san, according to a P-G article, he was badly hurt last season in spring training. Turns out he had a terribly sprained ankle after he rolled it in a collision with some doofus umpire. Really a shame because it means we didn't get a true picture of what Kuwata might or might not have had left in the tank.

As noted elsewhere---and you can look it up on any of the Japanese baseball statistical sites---Kuwata really was a heckuva pitcher in Japan for more than a decade. Even allowing for the fact that most Japanese hurlers are junkballers, he was pretty good. I know it's highly unlikely he'll do anything for us, but if his ankle is sound and he's over the arm problems that derailed his career in previous years---well, longer shots than him have made contributions at the big league level in the past.

Vlad said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Willy. Sounds interesting, and I put in an order for a copy.

WilliamJPellas said...

You're most welcome, Vlad. I would think that your international heritage would make it particularly interesting for you, the more so since Australian cities were actually bombed by Japanese aircraft during WWII.