MLB scouts optimistic on lefty Yang Hyeon-jong’s potential

November 19, 2014


SEOUL (Yonhap) — Until recently, Kia Tigers’ left-hander Yang Hyeon-jong had largely been an unknown commodity in the international market. Then toward the end of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season mid-October, Yang threw himself into the mix, saying he wanted to sign with a foreign club next season as long as the Tigers granted him his wish.

By completing his equivalent of seven full KBO seasons, Yang earned conditional free agency, a status that would allow him to be posted for interested Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs or enter negotiations with teams from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), only with the Tigers’ approval.

Earlier this week, the Tigers decided to post him. Once the highest bidder is announced and the Tigers accept the bid, that MLB club and Yang will have 30 days in which to negotiate a deal.

In the buildup to the Tigers’ decision to post Yang, the U.S. media, in particular New York Daily News, had written rave reviews of the 26-year-old pitcher. The paper labeled him the best pitcher in South Korea who projects as a No. 3 starter on a big league rotation, with potential to develop into a No. 2 man.

Major league scouts contacted by Yonhap News Agency said Yang may not immediately become a No. 3 starter, but he still has the potential to become a viable big league starter down the road.

Yang has been described as a four-pitch hurler, with fastball, curve, slider and changeup. His fastball sits around 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour).

One MLB scout called fastball Yang’s “biggest strength” because he can make it deceptive to hitters with his delivery. He added Yang’s changeup could become his bread-and-butter if he reaches the majors.

“He doesn’t throw it that often yet, and it’s still below average,” the scout noted. “But it has a lot of potential to get better with major league coaching. He once said he doesn’t throw it not because he can’t, but because he doesn’t really see the need for it. Whenever he did throw it, he’s shown plenty of promise.”

Another MLB scout spoke highly of Yang’s slider.

“He can change speeds on that slider to great effect,” the scout noted. “He also throws a forkball or a split-finger fastball, though only every so often. It could be a good weapon (in the majors) if he works at it.”

Based on wins and ERA, among more common statistical categories, Yang had a similar season with Kim Kwang-hyun of the SK Wyverns, a left-hander who was posted earlier and drew a US$2 million bid from the San Diego Padres. He and the Padres have until Dec. 11 to work out a contract.

Yang won more games than Kim, with a record of 16-8 compared to Kim’s 13-9. Kim had a better ERA with 3.42 than Yang’s 4.25. They pitched a nearly identical number of innings; Yang struck out 165 in 171 1/3 innings, while Kim fanned 145 in 173 2/3 innings.

On the other hand, Yang posted a superior WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), 1.39 to Kim’s 1.49. The opponents hit .253 off Yang this year, compared to .274 off Kim.

Yang also performed better than Kim in advanced stats, such as wins above replacement (WAR) and fielding independent pitching (FIP).

A third big league scout predicted Yang will attract larger bids from MLB teams than Kim because of his upside.

Though Kim has been the higher-profile pitcher of the two through their KBO careers — Kim has won three championships and a regular season MVP award, while Yang has one title but no MVP — the scout claimed Yang has been the better pitcher who didn’t get the recognition he deserved.

“I don’t think Kim is starter material,” the scout added. “Yang is able to throw more pitches than Kim and I think he can start at the major league level.”