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(LEAD) With each passing start, Kim Kwang-hyun proving his worth in Cardinals' rotation

All News 14:00 September 02, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS comments, details in paras 11-15, 21-22)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 2 (Yonhap) -- By now, the St. Louis Cardinals are probably regretting not putting Kim Kwang-hyun in their starting rotation from the beginning of the season.

After opening the year as the team's closer, Kim has moved into the rotation and thrived there. Perhaps that's even an understatement, as Kim has surrendered just one earned run in his four starts covering 20 2/3 innings, for a tiny 0.44 ERA.

The latest gem came against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati on Tuesday (local time), when Kim threw five shutout innings in a 16-2 rout. He improved to 2-0 after holding the Reds to three hits.

In this USA Today Sports photo via Reuters, Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Cincinnati Reds in the bottom of the first inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Sept. 1, 2020. (Yonhap)

As a starter, Kim has allowed only 12 hits, while striking out 11 and walking six. Opponents have only managed four extra-base hits against the left-hander.

Kim had been an MVP-winning starting pitcher for 13 years in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), before he signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals last winter. They felt short of guaranteeing him a spot in the rotation, though, only saying Kim would get every opportunity to win a starting job in spring.

Kim did all he could in spring training by throwing eight shutout innings. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit and baseball had to pause. Back for summer camp in July, Kim came out of the pen and picked up a save, as the Cardinals began to prepare him for the closer role.

Kim made his big league debut as the ninth-inning man on Opening Day on July 24 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and gave up two runs -- one unearned -- to preserve a 5-4 win.

The Cardinals were soon forced into a two-week hiatus due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the club. With injuries to multiple starters compounding the issue, the Cardinals turned to Kim, an experienced starter, to fill a hole in the rotation.

Kim's first start came on Aug. 17 against the Chicago Cubs. He gave up a run on three hits in 3 2/3 innings, and that remains the only earned run Kim has allowed so far in the rotation.

He continued to have the Reds' number, with 11 shutout frames against the National League Central rival across two starts with seven strikeouts and six hits.

The Cardinals spotted Kim a 6-0 lead in the top of the first inning, but the downside to the early offensive explosion was that Kim, after warming up before the game, had to wait 45 to 50 minutes before throwing his first pitch.

Kim said he was able to stay loose by throwing at an indoor facility at the stadium and his body felt just fine when he finally took the mound.

"When we score a lot in the top of the first inning like we did today, we have to be careful in the bottom half of that inning," Kim said. "If we let our guard down, things can get out of control and the game can turn into a slugfest. Fortunately, I got a double play ball (after a leadoff walk in the first)."

Knowing he was pitching in a hitter-friendly park, Kim said he tried to stay low in the zone and leaned mostly on his fastball and slider while ditching his changeup.

Of Kim's 85 pitches, 44 were four-seam fastballs and 28 were sliders. Kim only threw three changeups for a usage rate of 4 percent, down from 11 percent in his previous start.

In this USA Today Sports photo via Reuters, Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Cincinnati Reds in the bottom of the first inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Sept. 1, 2020. (Yonhap)

Advanced data suggest Kim has been rather lucky this season. Prior to Tuesday's outing, opponents were hitting only .189 on batted balls in play (BABIP) against Kim, while the league average was .289. Kim had also allowed a hard-hit rate of 44.4 percent, which would place him among the 15 worst in the majors, if Kim had pitched enough innings to qualify. On the flip side, his soft contact of 9.3 percent would put Kim near the bottom.

Before this game, Kim had an ERA of 1.08, but his fielding independent pitching (FIP), an ERA-like metric that measures a pitcher's effectiveness without the aid of defense, was 3.79. Having a higher FIP than ERA typically means the pitcher has been fortunate and that his ERA will likely regress toward the mean.

Kim has indeed received plenty of help from his defense, both infield and outfield. Sooner or later, though, hard grounders will start finding holes through the infield, and deep flies to the warning track will not be caught by diving or jumping outfielders as often. Kim doesn't miss a lot of bats, either.

For now, though, Kim is going to enjoy the ride, which has been quite historic.

Since ERA became an official stat in 1913, only one other left-hander had a lower ERA than Kim over his first four major league starts: that's Fernando Valenzuela, with a 0.25 ERA during his Cy Young Award season for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981.

Valenzuela was also named the Rookie of the Year in 1981, sparking the "Fernandomania" phenomenon. While St. Louis media have begun trumpeting Kim's case as the National League's top freshman this season, Kim himself said he hasn't given the award much thought.

"I've been lucky so far. Some hard-hit balls have gone straight to fielders, and my teammates have made some plays behind me," Kim said. "Hitters aren't in their best form (during the pandemic-hit season). I regard this season as a stepping stone for next year."

In this Getty Images photo, Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Cincinnati Reds in the bottom of the first inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Sept. 1, 2020. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
(END)

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