JUPITER, Fla. -- Kwang Hyun Kim was trying to throw one pitch especially slow on Wednesday. A competition he instilled with Adam Wainwright now pits their luring curveballs against one another: Who can toss it slower?
Imperfect scoreboard metrics at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium now give Kim the edge after Wednesday’s 14-9 win over the Mets, as a curveball he dealt to Kevin Pillar, tracked at 67 mph, was just a step below one from Wainwright at 68 mph on Tuesday.
While that number was ideally low, the others weren’t.
Among the fastballs he threw in his Spring Training debut, Kim averaged just 87.9 mph -- a mild concern for the 32-year-old lefty as he builds up for his second Major League season. But it's one he believes he can fix while down in Florida.
“As you can see from today’s game, my velo wasn’t high enough,” Kim said through team interpreter Craig Choi. “So before the season starts -- there’s a month left, and I’m trying to find out how to get into better shape.”
Not incredibly alarming is the fact that overpowering velocity has never been Kim’s strategy against hitters; he averaged just 89.9 mph on the fastball in his rookie season in 2020. Rather, it’s his pitch mix, his deception and his control.
Kim attacks with four pitches he throws rather regularly. In 2020 -- when he began as a closer but caught fire as a starter and never looked back to a 1.62 ERA -- he threw no pitch more than 50% of the time, keeping hitters off-balance to rank among the best in the league at limiting barreled balls and hard contact.
“There's a constant guessing game with KK,” manager Mike Shildt said.
None of those pitches really worked for Kim on Wednesday, however. He allowed a leadoff triple to Pillar before a strikeout preceded a walk and three singles, allowing three runs to score and prompting Shildt to yank Kim from the game at 27 pitches.
Kim would return in the second inning, though, as permitted under this year’s Spring Training rules. He recorded a strikeout and walked a batter, but both Shildt and catcher Andrew Knizner noticed a discernible improvement after the breather, during which Kim talked over mechanics with Wainwright. Kim was removed from the game a second time after he threw his 39th pitch.
“All of my pitches were out of control and also my velo was low,” Kim said. “I don't know why the reason is, but I’m trying to find out.”
Knizner provided a slightly different assessment.
“I want to say his stuff was almost too good,” the catcher said. “I think it was actually moving more than he probably wanted to. … When you’re throwing pitches with that much late movement, it’s on the plate, and then it’s off. I don't think it was anything to panic about or anything like that.”
The Cardinals have been patient with Kim this spring. Shildt has labeled him one of their “pace cars” during the ramp-up, giving the lefty ample time to get to his ideal workload. It’s just his second Major League season but his 14th overall, including the time he spent in Korea.
The Cardinals need Kim this year. Of all their roster questions, the rotation may be the biggest. While Wainwright has flashed brilliance so far, Jack Flaherty is coming off a down year and was shaky in his spring debut. There is now a question of health for Miles Mikolas, whose throwing schedule has been pushed back with right shoulder stiffness. And there is an open competition for the fifth spot.
Kim’s performance in 2021 will not just be of importance to the Cardinals, who expect him to slot in as their No. 3 or 4 starter, but doubly so for his future outlook, with his two-year, $8 million contract up at the end of the season. His rookie season was more than up to the billing, and now all that’s left is to reset for the encore.
“Of course,” Kim said when asked if he’d like to play in MLB past this year. “I know more than anyone that this season is very important to me. Next time on the mound ... I will show a different performance than today.”