24 January 2014

Discussing Korean Free Agent Pitcher Suk-min Yoon with Yonhap News' Jee-ho Yoo

Whenever we have thoughts or questions about Korean baseball, we like to go to someone who knows the situation intimately.  That person for Camden Depot is Yonhap News' Jee-ho Yoo.  For anyone who is an Orioles fan or someone who in interested in sports in Korea, he is a must follow on Twitter.

Anyway, Jee-ho and I discussed Yoon and Korean free agents in general:

JS: How does Suk-min Yoon compare to other pitchers in the Korean Baseball Organization?  Can you compare him to international pitchers in Korea who has had experienced in Major League Baseball?

JY: Yoon was not close to being the best pitcher in the KBO in 2013.  In fact, he was not even the best pitcher on his own team, the Kia Tigers.  He had some shoulder issues that had carried over from 2012 and had a slow start in 2013.  He bounced between the rotation and the pen, ending up with only 87.2 innings pitched, the second-lower total of his career.  Some players have career years in their "contract season" or in the season right before becoming a free agent, but Yoon picked the worst possible time to have perhaps his worst season as a KBO pro.

There are international pitchers here with varying amounts of big league experience.  With some exceptions, most of those guys are No. 1 or No. 2 starters on their clubs (exceptions being closers or relievers).  Take, for example, Dustin Nippert of the Doosan Bears.  He has won 38 games in three seasons here and will be back for his fourth.  He has a 3.05 ERA with 380 strikeouts in 499 innings.  He was slowed somewhat by injuries last year and still went 12-4 with 104 Ks in 118 IP.  He has been one of the most consistent pitcher, foreign or otherwise, in the KBO in the past three years.  Before coming over here, he had been with the Texas Rangers and was on their postseason roster during their run to the World Series in 2010, pitching in one ALDS game against the Rays.

How does Yoon stack up against someone like Nippert?  Just comparing their 2011-2013 stretch, Yoon did win the MVP after claiming the pitching triple crown in 2011, but struggled the following seasons.  Nippert has been the steadier of the two.  Yoon enjoyed that spectacular 2011 season (17-5, 2.45 ERA, 178 Ks in 172.1 IP, 44 BB, 3 SH), but in terms of consistency in the season since, I would not say he has been better than Nippert or other international pitchers.

JS: How involved were MLB teams in scouting Yoon before his free agency?  Why do you think it has taken this long for him to sign a contract?

JY: He had been drawing some scouts, I think, but more of them attended his games in 2013 than in previous years, perhaps.  It was probably difficult for scouts because he was mostly pitching out of the pen and you just did not know when he would take the mound.  I think some teams still may have reservations about Yoon's shoulder issues, though I am sure Scott Boras and company are trying to defuse such concerns.  Also, his peripheral numbers from his most recent season do not really stand out even though I understand scouts will look at more than just stats.  Just by looking at his numbers (strikeout ratio, walk rate, home runs allowed, etc.), you could even argue he has been in decline since winning the 2011 MVP.  Having said that, I know some teams will look past those stats.  I feel that he has the physical tools to succeed in the big leagues, if given a fair chance.

Yoon has also been adamant that he wants to be a starter, which may or may not have thrown off some teams who were considering him as a reliever.

JS: How was Hyun-jin Ryu's departure to MLB viewed in Korea?  Is the country happy to see their players perform in MLB or do they wish they play in their home country?  Do they look at Yoon the same way they looked at Ryu?

JY: With Ryu, I think people were generally happy to see the guy do well.  He has been a big source of pride for KBO fans because he served to validate the quality of this league.  He is the first Korean player to jump from the KBO to MLB and had, by most accounts, a pretty successful rookie season there.  It would not be an exaggeration to say Ryu single-handedly helped change the perception of the KBO.  He has been the best pitcher here for seven seasons and went out there to win 14 games plus another in the NLCS in his first year.  Yes, one player constitutes an extremely small sample size, but I think Ryu proved that the best in the KBO can still make it in the majors.

I think fans would be more than happy to see more KBO guys go play in the big leagues because those players have mostly paid their dues here.  Players must put in the equivalent of seven full seasons to be eligible for posting and nine full seasons to become free agents. (After eight seasons, they need their team's approval to sign with a foreign team.  After nine, they are complete free agents, like Suk-min Yoon.)  With high school or college players, it is probably different.  KBO clubs, first of all, would like to see local kids play for them at least for a few years.  Fans would also want them to play for their home teams first.

But, if there is another KBO player who can make the successful transition to MLB, then fans here will be pretty excited.  Yoon is no exception.  He has put in nine years for the Kia Tigers.  He has started, closed, and pitched in middle relief.  They won the 2009 Korean Series, but they had some terrible seasons, too.  He won the MVP after going 17-5, but there was also one season when he was 7-18 while still managing to keep his ERA under 4.00.  Yoon is probably the oly KBO pitcher to have led the league in wins and in losses in two different seasons in his career.  In other words, you want to talk about a guy who has paid his dues?  Yoon is that guy.

So if/when Yoon signs, people here will be rooting for him to succeed much as they did for Ryu last year.  They will hope that Yoon will further help change the perception or improve the image of the KBO.


Video of Yoon:


Next week, Jee-ho will tell us a bit about what he knows about the Orioles' efforts in Korea.

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