In what has been a busy off-season for the Texas Rangers, yet another move was made the other day that slid well under-the-radar. The signing of former KBO MVP, Hyeon-Jong Yang. Yang (32) is finally coming to the MLB after 14 seasons in the KBO. Those 14 seasons were all spent with the Kia Tigers, making him one of the longest tenured players in the KBO. His accolades include one KBO MVP, two Choi Dong awards (KBO Cy Young), a Korean series MVP, and two Korean Series Champions.
Coming to America:
Yang has long wanted to come stateside; though prior to 2018 the KBO posting system was structured differently than it is now. Steve Adams of MLBTR described the old posting system well here:
Under the previous posting system, when a KBO team would post a player for MLB clubs before he reached free agency (which requires nine years in the KBO), they’d inform Major League Baseball of their desire to do so, and all interested teams would submit a blind bid. If the KBO team deemed the bid to be an acceptable number, the highest-bidding MLB team would be granted a 30-day window to negotiate a contract. If the bid was not accepted or agreement on a contract could not be reached, the player returned his KBO team. The MLB team was refunded the amount of its bid.
In 2014, when Yang first attempted an MLB career, the Rangers were actually the finalist for his services. Though because of the implications of the 2014 posting system, their bid was shot down by the Kia Tigers, and an agreement wasn't met. Obviously their interest is still imminent because on February 11th the two sides reached a minor-league deal with an invite to ST.
Who is Hyeon-Jong Yang?
Yang is the kind of pitcher that new aged baseball has strayed all too far away from. A soft-tosser. Though just because it isn't a common style, doesn't mean it's not effective. Pitchers the likes of Kyle Hendricks, Pablo Lopez, and former KBO star Kwang-Hyun Kim have all found success as soft-tossers in the MLB.
So how has Yang found success? His nasty stuff helps...
Yang has a fastball, slider, change-up, and curve. Despite the fact that he technically has a four-pitch mix, he uses a two-pitch mix against either side. He applies a fastball-slider mix to lefties and a fastball-change-up mix to righties while using his curve sparingly.
He's left-handed, paints the corners to a Michaelangelo-esque extent, and pitches at a low velocity. Nothing stands out about him physically; he's 6'0 200 lbs. So what do I like about him? Being a soft-tosser, Yang throws the ball... easier. As I sat here watching videos of Yang, that I was only word that I could find to describe him, and I feel that it describes him well.
What do I mean by easier? Well - like many soft-tosser you'll see - Yang has a special "uniqueness" to his delivery that separates him from the large majority of pitchers, and that allows him to have immense control.
First off, he stands on the far left side of the rubber (his arm side), allowing him to have more control and be more deceptive to both sides. As you may recall, this is the same change that former-Ranger, Lance Lynn made as he transitioned from being a good pitcher in St. Louis to being an ace in Texas. Below are pictures of Lynn before and after he made that change:
Lynn's prior position:
Lynn's current position:
The second important quirk to note about Yang's delivery is how well he hides the ball. Not only does he stand on the left side of the rubber, but he also keeps the ball hidden from the hitter for a considerable amount of time in his arm motion alone. He does this by keeping the ball inside his glove until he brings it out behind his back. It isn't until his front foot lands that the hitter can actually see the ball though lefties see it slightly better than righties.
This is when the ball is first visible out of his hand:
Lastly, Yang does something at the tail end of his delivery that really brings home the notion that his delivery is easy. When his last foot lands - after he releases the ball - it doesn't pull his body glove-side, it pulls his body arm-side. This is rare in most pitchers because; typically, the momentum of throwing the ball pulls your body to your glove-side after release, but not Yang. This small action improves his control and greatly decreases the risk of him pulling pitches into the dirt.
Yang's soft landing:
Compile all of this and you get a pitcher who has many accolades under his belt, is one of the best pitchers in his league, and who hasn't had an injury since 2012.
The doubters will say that Yang is declining because his ERA rose to near career highs in 2020, but that is an entirely faulty argument. These are Yang's advanced stats since 2014 - when Fangraphs first started measuring KBO stats - and they tell the story of Yang's outlier:
(Note: This graphic was made before the conclusion of the 2020 KBO season. Yang ended the 2020 season with 31 starts - not 28 - though his stat line stayed similar to the one shown below.)
Remember when I rolled off all of Yang's accolades? Well he won one of his Choi Dong awards and his MVP in 2017. Comparing his 2017 stats and his 2020 stats; there is one key difference: Walk rate. His BB/9 jumped from 2.1 in 2017 to 3.4 in 2020, but besides that his stats in 2017 and 2020 are eerily similar.
2017: 3.88 FIP; 7.4 K/9; 0.8 HR/9; 0.327 BABIP
2020: 3.89 FIP; 8.1 K/9; 0.6 HR/9; 0.325 BABIP
So, the only difference between his 2017 season and his 2020 season was a lack of control which led to a high ERA... but was his ERA really that high? To that I'd say no. In fact, his 4.70 ERA ranked as the 16th best in the KBO last season. That's not an anomaly either as the KBO has always been an offense-happy league.
Earlier I neglected to mention when Yang won his first Choi Dong award, and he did so in... 2014. Yes, the season in which he put up a 4.25 ERA and a 4.0 BB/9 was also the season he won the Choi Dong! That 2014 season was arguably worse than his 2020 season though people will be quick to say that he had a down 2020.
Yang's role in Texas:
The Rangers are shuffling through many starting rotation options as they head into Spring Training and Yang is one of them. Kyle Gibson, Mike Foltynewicz, Dane Dunning, Kohei Arihara, Jordan Lyles, Tyson Ross, Kyle Cody, and Hyeon-Jong Yang are all seemingly in the running for what is a rebuilding Rangers' rotation. So what makes Yang different than the rest? Actually, there are several reasons:
1. He's left-handed. The only other pitcher vying for a rotation spot who's left-handed is Kolby Allard, and he spent the conclusion of last season working out of the pen after he had an atrocious start to the season.
2. Yang pitched more innings last year than anybody else in the MLB. The reason being is because the KBO played a full season while the MLB played a shortened season. Yang compiled 170 innings last season while the next highest total on the Rangers was another Asian-league player, Kohei Arihara of the NPB with 132.
3. Experience. The success he's accrued, his longevity, and his health are all reasons that I believe he will be chosen for a rotation spot out of ST this season, and why I think he'll ultimately do well in the MLB.
Hyeon-Jong Yang might not be a person you knew very much about before this, but I hope that after reading you will have a newfound respect for him while he makes his transition from the KBO to the MLB.