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S. Koreans off to sluggish starts in MLB spring training

By Yonhap

Published : March 10, 2021 - 10:41

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In this USA Today Sports photo via Reuters from last Wednesday, Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals returns to the dugout during the top of the first inning of a major league spring training game against the New York Mets at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. (USA Today Sports) In this USA Today Sports photo via Reuters from last Wednesday, Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals returns to the dugout during the top of the first inning of a major league spring training game against the New York Mets at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. (USA Today Sports)
Baseball fans shouldn't put too much stock into spring training results, good or bad. That's often the case in a normal year.

And in this pandemic-hit 2021 season -- games going fewer than nine innings and starting pitchers getting pulled in the first inning, only to come back out for the second inning -- that's even more so.

But sometimes, numbers are bad enough, even factoring in sample size, that they leave fans concerned about their favorite players heading into the regular season.

South Korean players in major league camps this year, be they established stars or rookies trying to earn their places, aren't exactly setting the world on fire.

Take, for example, St. Louis Cardinals' left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun. He has been roughed up for eight runs -- one unearned -- on 10 hits and three walks in three innings across two outings. In both appearances, Kim was taken out before completing the first inning but was back on the mound to start the second inning.

At least Kim was able to find his groove somewhat in his most recent outing, against the Miami Marlins on Monday in Florida. His average four-seam fastball velocity ticked up from 87.9 mph to 88.8 mph. He even reached 91.2 mph, after topping out at 89.7 mph the previous time out.

Yes, it's all about the process. And yes, it's more about getting stretched out and increasing the workload in time for the regular season, starting on April 1. Still, try to wrap your head around the fact that this is the same pitcher who didn't give up any run in nine spring innings last year, while recording 14 strikeouts and walking just one batter, and who went on to post a perfect 3-0 record with a 1.62 ERA in eight regular season starts.

The major difference between last spring training and this one is that Kim is no longer fighting for a rotation spot. Kim was under a lot more pressure to perform immediately in 2020, the first season of his two-year contract, and he may have pushed himself to be sharper in spring training than he normally would have at that time of year.

In 2021, Kim is virtually locked in as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. He doesn't have to worry about making an early impression as much and just has to focus on getting ready for the games that count.

Neither Kim nor his manager Mike Shildt expressed much concern after the left-hander's latest game. Kim said he found enough positive takeaways from the game, especially over the second and third innings, while Shildt said Kim "looked more like himself" once he returned from his first-inning exit.

Another South Korean lefty in camp doesn't have the same luxury. Yang Hyeon-jong, once a rival to Kim in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), is now trying to crack the Texas Rangers' roster out of camp in Arizona.

The long-time starter in Korea could either be a back-end starter or a reliever for the Rangers. In his spring training debut Sunday, Yang was touched up for a solo home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers in one inning of work. He gave up another hit but also struck out one batter while getting credited with a save.

A player in Yang's situation -- pitching on a minor league contract and trying to make his way onto the 40-man roster -- has precious few opportunities to leave a lasting impression. The margin for error is decidedly smaller for Yang than for someone like Kim, or Toronto Blue Jays' Ryu Hyun-jin, firmly entrenched as the team's No. 1 starter.

Yang admitted it wasn't the greatest of his outings but said he'd try to keep getting better with each passing game. Manager Chris Woodward praised Yang's execution and spoke highly of his energy on the mound too.

One other South Korean big league rookie, San Diego Padres' infielder Kim Ha-seong, is also trying to break camp with the big league club. At least Kim is doing that on a guaranteed, four-year deal.

Kim, a career shortstop in the KBO expected to get the bulk of time at second base with the Padres, has appeared at both shortstop and second base during spring. He has been mostly fine with his glove but not so much with his bat. Kim is batting only 2-for-13 with no extra-base hits. He has struck out four times and walked once.

Kim doesn't yet appear in danger of getting demoted to the minors, not after the Padres invested US$28 million in him. But picking up a few more hits in the coming games wouldn't hurt either.

Tampa Bay Rays' Choi Ji-man, meanwhile, has four hits in eight at-bats. He has also drawn three walks and has a .636 on-base percentage -- this after missing early spring action while nursing a sore knee.

Choi has always been an excellent spring performer. He has a career .299/.424./464 line in 118 spring training games.

Absolutely no one in the Blue Jays' camp is worried about Ryu, even after he gave up a home run in two innings of work against the Baltimore Orioles last Friday. The veteran has his own set of routines, and the club mostly leaves him alone.

It wouldn't be wise for the Blue Jays to mess with Ryu anyway. He finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting last year -- a year after being runner-up in the National League Cy Young race. (Yonhap)