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In pursuit of MLB deal, ex-KBO MVP remains forgotten in free agency

14:09 January 13, 2021

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 13 (Yonhap) -- Have glove. Will travel.

South Korean free pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong would love to travel to the United States this winter to chase his major league dream, a raging coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding.

With each passing day, though, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Yang, who has been with the Kia Tigers since 2007, will get to live that dream this year. That the 2017 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) MVP is coming off a down year isn't helping.

In this file photo from Oct. 18, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the LG Twins in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

In a winter of discontent with several big league free agents left unsigned a dozen days into the new year, Yang has been largely forgotten.

In the slow-developing market, time isn't on Yang's side. The left-hander has set a self-imposed deadline of mid-January to pick his destination, be it the KBO or Major League Baseball (MLB), so that he will have more clarity as to how he should prepare for the new season. KBO training camps open at the start of February, and MLB camps are scheduled to follow just a couple of weeks later.

Yang couldn't have picked a worse time than 2020 to have such a poor season. He posted a 4.70 ERA last year, his worst as a full-time starter, while going 11-10 in 31 starts. His ERA sat at 5.88 at the end of July, and the southpaw had to put up a 3.72 ERA across his final 16 starts to bring the season number down to a more respectable level.

Other numbers took a beating, too. He walked 3.34 batters per nine innings, his highest in five seasons. He issued 64 walks in 172 1/3 innings in 2020 after allowing only 33 free passes in 184 2/3 innings the previous year.

Also in 2020, Yang's walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) amounted to 1.42. It was his worst figure since 2014.

In this file photo from Oct. 29, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the Doosan Bears in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Though Yang threw his four-seam fastball harder than he had the previous six seasons, he hit the strike zone only 42.5 percent of the time, the lowest in that same span.

Yang's wins above replacement using FanGraphs' formula, or fWAR, came to 2.56. This means he was worth only about two and a half wins more to the Tigers than a replacement-level pitcher would have been in 2020. Yang had never posted an fWAR below 3.79 as a full-time starter.

Recency bias will likely lead major league clubs to conclude Yang isn't worthy of their investment, with his long track record of KBO success shoved aside.

It was only in 2017 that Yang was voted the regular season MVP here, thanks to a 20-6 record and a 3.44 ERA. He earned the Korean Series MVP award that same season by leading the Tigers to their first championship in eight years. Yang pitched a complete game shutout and saved the clinching game in that series.

Yang was even better in 2019, when he was 16-8 with a 2.29 ERA in 29 starts. He served up just six home runs in 184 2/3 innings and had a 7.41 fWAR.

In this file photo from Oct. 29, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers (R) is greeted by his manager Matt Williams (L) in front of the dugout during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the Doosan Bears at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

This is Yang's second knock on MLB doors. He was posted by the Tigers after the 2014 season but couldn't land a deal then. A mysterious club won the bidding for the exclusive rights to negotiate with Yang, but the Tigers weren't satisfied with the winning amount and pulled Yang back from the market.

In each of the ensuing six seasons since deciding to stay with the Tigers, Yang has thrown at least 170 innings. In that span, the workhorse left-hander leads all KBO pitchers with 85 wins, 10 complete games, 925 strikeouts and 1,119 1/3 innings pitched.

Yang's agent, Choi In-gook, said last week that some teams trying to fill out their rotation have shown interest, and added Yang will not accept a split contract, which pays players different salaries based on time spent in the majors and the minors.

Choi also predicted that talks could pick up speed once the posted Japanese ace Tomoyuki Sugano came off the board.

Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants star, failed to sign a deal by his deadline last week and returned to his Nippon Professional Baseball. Sugano, a two-time Central League MVP, was regarded as the best Asian pitcher to be made available this winter. If the potential top-of-the-rotation material like Sugano can't find a suitor, what chances does someone like Yang, seen as a notch below Sugano, have to sign a big league deal?

It could be a while before Yang finds out the answer, if he wants to wait for it at all.

In this file photo from Oct. 29, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers takes a bow before fans at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the Doosan Bears. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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