by Rob Neyer
Byung-Hyun Kim has been in the major leagues for fewer than five seasons, but he’s been able to pack a lot of action into his career already.
In 1999, he became just the third Korean-born player in major-league history (Chan Ho Park was the first, and Jin Ho Cho was the second).
In 2001, he suffered what was probably the worst World Series a relief pitcher ever has (yes, even worse than George Frazier).
In 2002, he bounced back from that horrific experience with his best season yet, winning eight games and saving 36 more.
And in 2003, after four seasons in the bullpen, he switched from relieving to starting. As I write this, Kim has started six games and posted a 1-5 record, which of course will lead many to consider this experiment a failure. But Kim’s 4.00 ERA is fine, most of his peripheral stats are fine, and a good starter is more valuable than a great reliever (at least most of the time).
But all that aside, you know what’s really interesting about Kim?
He’s the first of his kind in nearly eighty years.
I’ve been working, off and on, with Bill James on a project since the early 1990s. I can’t really discuss the project in any detail — I’ll have more news this summer, I hope — but I can tell you that we’ve found a wealth of specific information about hundreds of pitchers; basically, what they threw and how they threw it.
As one of the by-products of this research, I’ve identified 18 submarine pitchers, including Kim, in the major leagues or the Negro Leagues. I’m sure there are more, perhaps many more, but I do think we’ve found all of them with substantial careers. And looking these submariners, it’s pretty apparent that Kim is a sort of pitcher that we haven’t seen in a long, long time.
Submariners generally fall into the same class, pitch-wise. Most of them throw a sinker or sinking fastball (sometimes those terms describe the same pitch, sometimes they don’t), along with a curve or (less commonly) a slider. In the 1930s, Elden Auker threw a sinker and a curve. In the 1970s, Kent Tekulve threw a sinker and a slider. In the 1980s, Dan Quisenberry threw a (slow) sinker and a curve. Today, Chad Bradford throws a sinker and a curve.
The single feature common to every submariner since Auker is a lack of velocity. Yes, all these guys threw “fastballs” of one sort or another, but they weren’t fastballs (if you take my meaning).
Until Byung-Hyun Kim, who throws fastballs. Scary, rising fastballs that register in the low nineties on the radar gun. He also throws a killer slider, and an occasional change-up (mostly for grins). In a nutshell, Kim is the first hard-throwing submarine pitcher that the great majority of living baseball fans have seen with their own eyes.
And for that alone, we should be grateful for all the foreign-born players who now populate Major League Baseball. I’ve written about this before, but without all the players from Korea and Japan and the Dominican Republic and other parts foreign, baseball wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as it is.
Postscript: Sorry, didn’t mean to leave you hanging there . . . As you might have gathered from the above, Kim is not the first hard-throwing submariner. The first — and perhaps the only, until now — was somebody you’ve probably heard of. Right-handed fellow named Carl Mays. Pitched from 1915 through 1929, probably belongs in the Hall of Fame, and once killed a guy.