Every year a handful of players from across the sea make their way to the United States looking for a contract with a MLB team. While not player looking to make the transition ends up doing so and many head back to South Korea or Japan, there are still a handful who get some attention from MLB clubs. One South Korean pitcher looking to make the transition to the United States is left-hander Hyeon-Jong Yang. The veteran southpaw could find a guaranteed rotation spot with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
After trading away Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon, the current projected starting rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021 is one with plenty of holes to fill. This goes without mentioning the trade rumors that have swirled around Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault this offseason.
As for Yang, he has pitched his entire professional career with the Korean Baseball Organization’s Kia Tigers. Last season, he tossed 172.1 innings posting a 4.70 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. On paper a 4.70 ERA and WHIP above 1.4 isn’t very impressive. However, the KBO was a very high scoring league in 2020.
There was only nine KBO pitchers with a qualified ERA under 4,00 last season. In comparison, there was 37 qualified MLB pitchers in 2019 with an ERA under 4.00. The 20th lowest ERA in 2020 in the KBO last season was 6.17, recorded by Ricardo Pinto. Yang had the 16th best mark in the league.
Overall, the left-hander has tossed 1986 innings in 14 total seasons. He has a 3.83 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. To go with that, he’s had a 9.4% walk rate and 19.8% strikeout rate. However, Yang does carry a strong .73 HR/9 rate throughout his career. Notably, 2020 was the first time since 2013 he pitched a qualified amount of innings and finished outside of the top 15 in ERA.
Yang is a very durable pitcher. He’s pitched at least 170 innings every season since 2014. He’s also averaged just over six innings a start during this time and his lowest single season inning total from 2014-2020 was 171.1 in 2014.
Baseball America gives a good rundown of Yang in an article written before the 2020 season. Yang uses four pitches. He’s not a hard thrower only averaging out in the 89-90 MPH range. He also utilizes a curveball, slider and change up. His strong suit is his command, which helps his pitches play up to an average level. 2021 will be Yang’s age-33 season. While he is getting older, he’s not a pitcher who relies on big time velocity to get outs and has so far done fairly well throughout his pro-career.
In more recent reports, Yang ended negotiations with the Kia Tigers to pursue a MLB opportunity. Earlier in the offseason, it was reported that he was originally that Yang’s agent, In-Gook Choi, said that Yang wasn’t interested in taking a split deal and wanted a guaranteed MLB contract. With the offseason progressing and nearing February, they’ve stated that they are willing to take any deal that guarantees him a 40-man roster spot.
With the current state of affairs for the Pittsburgh Pirates and starting pitching, Yang would likely find that guaranteed MLB roster spot he was looking for earlier in the offseason and likely a rotation spot which may entice him more to sign with the Bucs.
Currently, Brault, Mitch Keller and Kuhl have three of the spots to themselves. However, the last few spots are very much up in the air. Cody Ponce, JT Brubaker, Wil Crowe and Miguel Yajure are all in competition for the final two spots. Plus, as we discussed above, both Brault and Kuhl remain available on the trade market.
The Pirates could use the stability a durable veteran arm like Hyeon-Jong Yang brings as well as one who could help bridge the gap for some of their younger arms. The Bucs will likely see Miguel Yajure and Cody Bolton in the majors sometime during 2021. Getting an arm who can consistently give you close to 6 innings an outing will also help the Pirates save their bullpen arms.