25 year old Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-Jin will head to America next year according to reports. Teams will have to bid for him like they did with Yu Darvish. He is represented by Scott Boras, but we won’t see the same kind of money as we did with Darvish. Some MLB scouts have been going to watch his outings and the Yankees are one of the teams reportedly interested. According to David P. (a Pacific Rim scout, @YankeeSource on Twitter, he could be a mid-rotation starter that has good pitchability and better stuff than Wei Yin-Chen (99 FIP – this year, so almost exactly an average pitcher in the Majors).
So far this year in the KBO (South Korea’s Professional Baseball League), Hyun-Jin has thrown 145.2 innings and walked just 38 batters (6.44 %) and struck out 166 batters (28.1 % and 4.37 K/BB) with an ERA of 3.03 and WHIP of 1.13 (17 quality starts). For comparison, former Major League pitcher Chan Ho Park has 64 strikeouts and 51 walks in 115.1 innings with a 5.07 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. The only thing Park has been better at is allowing fewer home runs at 10 to 11, but Hyun-Jin’s home run rate is a lot better, giving up .68 HR/9IP with Park at .78 HR/9IP. For further comparison, for Major Leaguers Dave Bush (3.82 ERA and 1.23 WHIP), Dustin Nippert (3.26 ERA and 1.2 WHIP), and Henry Sosa (4.2 ERA and 1.24 WHIP) are also pitching in the KBO. According to a short study I did last off-season, the KBO roughly translates to AAA for pitchers statistically. The projections were roughly accurate when it came to Mario Santiago and Chan Ho Park moving to the KBO this year. According to that projection metric, Hyun-Jin projects to be roughly as effective as Max Scherzer and Francisco Liriano (career numbers by combining strikeouts, ERA, WHIP, and BAA) in the big leagues. However, how does Hyun-Jin look like as a pitcher from a scouting perspective? I watched quite a bit of video to find out (I watched several, but if you want to watch some as well, this is the best).
He is a big lefty, he wears #99 and it is perhaps appropriate as he is built sort of like a defensive lineman.
Like most pitchers, his feature pitch is his fastball. At 91-92 MPH (hit 93 MPH a couple times), it is a straight fastball that the Korean hitters were really having problems with. I saw him locate it both high and low. When it is low, it has a little bit of dip (not quite a sinker though). Hyun-Jin can and likes to throw it inside to right-handers (and away from lefties, although I saw him throw it low and inside to lefties a couple of times as well). He throws strikes with it, and is a traditional pitcher in that he likes to start the count with it.
His primary breaking ball is a 85-86 MPH a splitter/slider. It has really impressive drop. We will call it a split finger, but some sliders break like this as well (it could also be called a hard change-up, which I think you can call most splitters).
His real change is at 79 MPH-82.5 MPH and it breaks like a traditional change. It has pretty good movement, but isn’t as important for him as it is for a lot of lefties.
His 3rd breaking pitch is a 67-70 MPH slow curve. It doesn’t have a huge loopy break like some slow curves do, but obviously doesn’t have hard break. He can throw it for strikes and throw it in the dirt as well. So it is the best of both worlds in the sense of not being just a get me over pitch, but also one he can control.
In Korea, it looked like all of his pitches were put away pitches. When he got 2 strikes, he threw any of his 4 pitches. Throwing strikes didn’t seem to be a problem for him, missing in the zone was more of a problem for Hyun-Jin. The curve stayed high at times and if hitters, especially big league hitters, expect it, they should be able to hit it hard. I also wonder if he will be able to throw the changeup for as many strikes as I saw him throw it for in his outings with Korea.
It is a good 4 pitch mix though, and none of his pitches are bad pitches. The best pitch is the split, and will be his swing and miss pitch in the Majors. The fastball velocity is slightly above average for a left-handed starter, and he has pretty solid command of it. His assortment of breaking pitches should allow him to get both lefties and righties out in the big leagues. He has some swing and miss stuff and the body and delivery to withstand as a starter (he has been throwing over 100 pitches per a start) over a long season.
When you look at qualified lefty starters in the big leagues (2012 only) with average fastballs between 91-92 MPH, you get Derek Holland, Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson, Ricky Romero, Chris Sale, Wade Miley, Cole Hamels, and Madison Bumgarner. Cliff Lee has the curve and change, but nothing like Hyun-Jin’s splitter/slider, instead relying on a cutter. You can throw him out. C.J. Wilson has all the pitches, but also has a cutter as well. He is sort of an interesting comp and is sitting at a 3.93 FIP. Holland is another interesting comp, with a curveball several MPHs faster than Hyun-Jin’s. He has a 4.73 FIP, while cutter happy Ricky Romero (who is somewhat similar otherwise) has been a disaster this year. In watching both this year, there is no question I would rather have Hyun-Jin over Romero. Sale has the funky arm angle that makes any kind of comparison difficult and Hyun-Jin just doesn’t compare to Cole Hamels, one of the best pitchers in baseball. On paper, Bumgarner seems similar to Hyun-Jin, but his “slider” is more of a cutter, nothing like Hyun-Jin’s slider. To me, Hyun-Jin is somewhere between Wilson and Holland. He probably throws more strikes than either of them, but I actually like Holland’s stuff (mainly because of the fastball) better. Hyun-Jin may be less hittable than Holland has been this year thanks to a better ability to use his breaking pitches. Holland is about half a year younger, but Hyun-Jin is so much more advanced in his ability to command and mix his pitches. His movement on those pitchers are pretty good as well, as this chart from Fangraphs a couple of years ago shows:
It is probably too early to make a very educated guess as to how much money a team will be willing to spend on Ryu Hyun-Jin. However, he looks like a guy that can pitch about MLB average as a left-handed starter. He has a good enough fastball to survive and the off-speed stuff and command to keep hitters guessing.
(I have to thank Dan at mykbo.net, @mykbo, a ton. He provided me with most of the video to watch, and I used his website for most of the statistics.)