While many other clubs sent out their foreign aces to begin the new Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season last month, the Hanwha Eagles gave the symbolic Opening Day assignment to homegrown right-hander Kim Min-woo.
It was a surprising choice, given that the Eagles' new American lefty, Ryan Carpenter, appeared to have earned that opportunity with an excellent preseason. In 2020, Kim flashed promise that made him the No. 1 overall pick at the 2014 draft, but finished with a pedestrian 5-10 record and a 4.34 ERA. He was easily the least impressive name among Opening Day starters.
Nearly two months later, manager Carlos Subero's faith is paying off. Kim has emerged as the unlikely KBO leader in wins, tied with Won Tae-in of the Samsung Lions with six. That is already Kim's career high, and he has done that on a rebuilding club that likely won't sniff a postseason berth this year. Kim's 3.33 ERA is second on the team behind Carpenter's 2.59. Kim has pitched at least five innings in nine of his 10 starts so far.
In his most recent start Thursday, Kim threw seven shutout innings against the Doosan Bears while allowing just three hits. He has now pieced together three consecutive scoreless starts, covering 18 innings. He has struck out 18 and held teams to nine hits, all of them singles.
The streak began immediately after his worst outing of the season on May 9, when he was charged with six earned runs in 3 1/3 innings against the LG Twins.
The biggest key to Kim's success has been his ability to keep left-handed hitters at bay.
Last year, left-handed batters hit .289/.393/.439 in 246 at-bats against Kim. This season, Kim has cut the slash line to .183/.294/.183 in 93 at-bats, with no extra-base hits.
Compare that to his numbers against right-handed batters in 103 at-bats this year, .204/.297/.427. Save for the slugging percentage, inflated by five home runs that he has allowed to right-handed hitters, Kim has been just as effective against lefties as against righties.
Under Subero, the Eagles have been the league's most aggressive team with defensive shifts, and Kim has been a beneficiary.
With left-handed batters in the box, the Eagles often have three infielders on the right side of the second base. The thinking on the Eagles part was that a pitcher like Kim, a right-hander without dominant stuff that can jam left-handed batters, could now pitch inside on lefties without worrying as much about giving up hits to the right side.
Based on some underlying numbers, that strategy seems to be working. Hitters are batting only .130 against Kim on balls hit to the right side of the field, compared to .303 to left and .364 up the middle. Last year, they hit .263 to the right against Kim.
Overall, opponents are batting a league-worst .228 on balls in play against Kim, down from .287 last season.
That is indicative of some luck on Kim's part -- with well-hit balls likely ending up in gloves of shifted fielders -- and is probably not sustainable. Given the way the Eagles shift, it's no coincidence that Kim's two rotation mates, Nick Kingham and Carpenter, rank third and fourth in the KBO in batting average on balls in play.
Regression may be on the way, but Kim just wants to enjoy the view from the top as the league leader in wins.
"I've never been in this position before, and I think I'll screen-capture the leaderboard when I go back to the hotel," Kim cracked in his postgame interview Thursday. "As nice as it is to be leading the league in wins, I am more pleased that I have a new career high now."
Subero has pointed to the addition of a slider to the arsenal, which previously featured fastball, splitter and curve, as a reason for Kim's early season success. Kim threw his slider only 1.9 percent of the time last year but has increased that usage rate to 12.4 percent this year.
"By throwing the slider more, I may have given hitters something extra to think about at the plate," Kim said. "It's been working well." (Yonhap)