The upcoming free agent market is thin on starting pitchers. Some teams that look for depth may turn to Asia for new additions. There are few pitchers out of Korea that have been scouted by MLB teams, and one of them is the Kia Tigers’ lefty ace Hyeon-Jong Yang.
Yang is no stranger to MLB teams, as he was previously posted during the 2014-15 offseason, the same hot stove in which fellow Korean Jung-Ho Kang was posted and signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was reported that the winning bid was roughly around $1.5 million, but the KIA Tigers ultimately rejected the bid, as it was deemed too low for their liking. Now as an unrestricted free agent, Yang won’t have to worry about a posting fee and this may attract more MLB teams.
Since he was last posted, Yang has turned out to be one of the best starting pitchers in the league. In 2015, Yang led the league in ERA (2.44) while throwing 184.1 innings over 31 starts. He replicated another fine year in 2016, going 10-12 with a 3.68 ERA in 200.1 IP (31 GS, 3 CG). He became the first Korean-born starter in the KBO to surpass the 200 innings mark since Hyun-Jin Ryu in 2007 (211 IP).
Here are all the pitches thrown by Yang in his complete game win versus the SK Wyverns this year. Per Statiz, his fastball averaged at 143.8 kmph (89.4 mph) in this game.
A major league scout who requested anonymity evaluated Yang as a guy with a “ceiling as a number 4 starter and a floor as a Triple-A starter.” He also said Yang could make it in a major league bullpen as a mop-up guy, but not necessarily as a lefty specialist, “like a sixth starter/long reliever role.”
“His fastball is average…he has a good feel for secondary stuff and has an average command,” the scout said.
Two years ago, a New York Post article quoted a scout that had Yang’s fastball sitting between 92 to 95 mph. Au contraire; he sits closer to 88 to 91 mph while touching 92 in occasion. In 2016, he averaged at 143.0 kmph on his heater, which translates to roughly 89 mph. However, he can bump it up and sit higher when need be. In his Wild Card Round start against the LG Twins in October 11, Yang sat around 90-93 mph and touched 94.
Command may be large factor deciding Yang’s level of success in MLB. The Korean lefty is no stranger to growing pains in locating the ball. From 2010 to 2012, Yang struggled with commanding the strikezone, walking more than five batters per nine innings in each year (5.21, 5.84 and 6.81, respectively). He has since much improved, but has not gotten to a level that could make him a frontline starter in the major leagues.
Per Statiz charts, in 2016, he has located a lot of fastballs and sliders towards the very center of the strike zone, which makes some think that it is a correctable issue. If Yang were to go to America, he will have to show that he can take steps in his command.
Yang has enjoyed success in his KBO career and will likely become the highest-paid pitcher if he chooses to stay in Korea. Two winters ago, another lefty starter in his prime, Won-Jun Jang, signed a four-year deal worth roughly $7.5 million with the Doosan Bears, a big figure in KBO standards.
Yang would easily gather offers higher than that. If he were to go to MLB, it is more than likely that he would have to put his financial gain on hold to test out his dreams. While it is difficult to exactly predict how Yang’s stuff would fare in the MLB, it is safe to say that he was never quite at Hyun-Jin Ryu’s caliber in the KBO. For instance, Ryu has a career 2.80 ERA in KBO in 1269.0 IP. Yang has a career 3.95 ERA in 1251.1 IP and only had three seasons in which he had an ERA lower than Ryu’s worst in KBO (3.57 in 2009 in 189.1 IP).
While Yang is less of a sure thing than guys like Ryu, he is one of the best arms to come out of Korea in recent years. If he can’t field good offers from MLB teams, it’s possible that he stays in Korea or looks to go to Japan. Given that he previously wanted to go stateside, you’d have to think he’ll take his time to pursue MLB before settling on staying in Asia.
For now, the closest comparison I could come up with Yang is Hector Santiago, another pitcher that doesn’t have a wow fastball but can throw a set of secondary pitches. Command is neither of their best friends.