By TED BAARDA
Earlier this month, reports came out about Kia Tigers left-handed ace Hyun-jong Yang (also spelled Hyeon-jong Yang) looking to make the jump to MLB this offseason. To most North American fans the 32-year-old Yang is likely someone they have never heard of, except for maybe catching a glimpse of him playing an early-morning KBO game on TV.
Hyun-jong Yang has had quite a successful career in the KBO since debuting for Kia in 2007 as a 19-year-old. In 2014 Yang was awarded the Dong-won Choi Award, the KBO equivalent of the Cy Young, going 16-8 with a 4.25 ERA (the KBO was in a high run-scoring environment at the time).
After the 2014 season Yang was posted by the Tigers in his first attempt to come to MLB. However, the bid received by the Kia Tigers was deemed by the club to be too low so they chose not to accept the bid and kept Yang.
The best year of Yang’s career was 2017, where he started the season pitching for the Korean national team in the World Baseball Classic. In the KBO that year Yang went 20-6 with a 3.44 ERA, winning his second Dong-won Choi award and the league MVP. The Tigers won the Korean Series and Yang was named Korean Series MVP to top off his dominant year.
How he Pitches:
|Pitch Type||Percentage Use||Average Velocity (MPH)|
The bespectacled Yang has a simple and repeatable wind-up with a full leg kick and a release from a ¾ arm slot. Yang has a traditional pitch mix of a fastball, slider, curve and changeup. His fastball is a straight 4-seamer that averages just under 90 MPH and can touch 93-94. Yang makes up for the low velocity by being able to locate his fastball to all four corners of the zone and is comfortable working at the top of the zone or above the zone as well as inside to hitters.
Yang’s low 80s changeup is his best secondary pitch, and it plays off his fastball well. He gets quite a few bad swings and misses from hitters that are out in front of it. Yang’s control of his changeup was a bit of an issue early in the season, as he was either leaving it belt high or burying it in the dirt. As the season went, he was able to throw his changeup for low strikes more regularly but his command of the pitch can still be inconsistent.
His third pitch is a low 80s slider, which has sweeping movement along with some drop. Like his change up, Yang only throws his slider to one half of the plate (inside to righties, away to lefties).
Yang’s last pitch is his curveball, that he throws in the mid 70’s. It doesn’t have exceptional break, but he uses it more as a change-of-pace breaking ball or to steal a strike at the beginning of an at-bat.
Overall, Yang typically has good control and can locate certain pitches to certain parts of the zone. He appeared to be wary of giving up hard contact this season, and buried more pitches in the dirt as a result. This along with varying his pitch mix and occasionally relying on his 3rd and 4th pitches against certain teams may have contributed to his rising walk rate this season.
When he misses his spots, Yang also tends to miss away from the middle of the plate, which helps him avoid getting hit hard. While he throws his fastball well over 50% of the time, he does have the confidence to throw his change or slider multiple times in a row if he feels that pitch has a better chance to get a tough hitter out.
Hyun-jong Yang appears to be a candidate to make it to MLB as a control-reliant lefty at the back end of a rotation, with fastball command and a good offspeed and breaking pitch to make up for the low velocity.
However, should he need to move to the bullpen he has the pitches to get both lefties and righties out (and if his fastball gained a few miles per hour in short stints that would help too).
It will be interesting to see what adjustments he makes in the MLB in terms of pitch locations and sequences, such as working on a backdoor slider to righty hitters or throwing more changeups to lefties. In fact, in his best start of the season (8 scoreless innings on October 18) he threw more changeups to left-handed hitters, although he also had his best fastball velocity of the season in that game too. MLB teams in need of lefthanded pitching depth should take a close look at Yang.