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Diamondbacks All-Time Top 50: #12, Byung-Hyun Kim

Before Archie Bradley dominated hitters with his strikeout stuff, and before Brad Ziegler used the submarine delivery to induce ground balls seemingly at will, Arizona had this submariner from Korea who was one of the best relievers in the game before he became a starting pitcher.

National League Division Series - Arizona Diamondbacks v Atlanta Braves - Game Four
  • Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 18.00 (3/37/17)
  • Seasons: 1999-2003, 2007
  • Stats: 10 starts, 325.2 IP, 4.42 ERA, 8.4 bWAR

Best season: 2002 - 72 games, 84.0 IP, 2.04 ERA, 223 ERA+, 4.1 bWAR

Byung-Hyun Kim joins the countdown as the highest-ranked relief pitcher on the list. After compiling gaudy numbers as a stand-out pitcher in South Korea from 1996-1998 (including a game against the U.S. Olympic team where he struck out 15 batters in 6 23 innings), Kim was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks for the 1999 season. Featuring an unorthodox submarine delivery rising fastball, he flew through the minors with ease, striking out 42 batters in 38 23 innings between AA and AAA. By then, Diamondbacks coaches had seen enough and he made his major league debut, closing out a game and earning a save against the New York Mets on May 29, 1999 - at age 20.

Kim appeared in 25 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks that season, compiling a not-so-stellar 4.61 ERA, but posting a 10.2 K/9. The 2000 season was when he made his mark as one of the best young relievers in the game. He only went 6-6 with a 4.46 ERA, but he wowed players, coaches, and fans alike with 111 strikeouts in 70.2 innings pitched for a 14.1 K/9. Doing this at the age of 21, Kim joined some rather elite company. The last pitcher to appear in as many games (61) as Kim did at the age of 21 was Pedro Martinez in 1993.

2001 was an even better season for the young “veteran” pitcher. He took over as the team’s closer mid-season, replacing an injured Matt Mantei, and posted 19 saves to help lead the Diamondbacks to the NL West title. His K/9 dropped somewhat to the merely overwhelming rate of 10.4, but his ERA made huge strides as he finished the season with a 2.94 ERA, which ranked second on the team behind Randy Johnson and ahead of Curt Schilling. Kim’s unorthodox submarine delivery and rising fastball caught the attention of fans everywhere, as it acted almost like an anti-sinker when paired with his tailing fastball. Starting around the knees and climbing through the zone, hitters couldn’t lay off what initially appeared to be a fat pitch, only to be devastated by late movement in the zone. Kim became known as the pitcher with the “riser”, and no one had an answer for it.

In four games between the National League Divisional Series and the National League Championship Series, Kim was automatic - just like he was during the regular season. Over the two series, Kim posted six and a third innings with one hit, no runs, with four strikeouts. Then the World Series happened. In Game 4, Kim came into the the game with the Diamondbacks up 3-1 after a stellar performance by Curt Schilling. Kim was tagged for a home run by Tino Martinez which tied the game. Then, in extra innings, Derek Jeter hit the game-winning home run off of Kim which earned him the nickname “Mr. November”. The next game, Kim was once again called upon to close out the game, only to give up a home run to Scott Brosius which tied the game. The Diamondbacks eventually went on to win the series in seven games, Randy Johnson closing out Game 7, with Kim ready in the bullpen had the game gone into extra innings as Johnson had been pulled for a pinch hitter. With the Diamondbacks winning the World Series, Kim became the first Asian-born player to play in and win a World Series title. In the celebratory parade, the team was quick to forgive Kim his stumbles in the World Series, with Mark Grace making a special point of the fact that a big reason the team even made it to the series was due to the work of Kim.

In 2002, Kim continued to improve on his already impressive resume, earning himself a selection to the NL All-Star team. He also returned to Yankee Stadium to face the Yankees during the regular season. On June 6th, Kim pitched two scoreless innings, including four strikeouts to secure the save.

It seems there might have been some leftover negative feelings about facing the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in Kim’s system. After abusing the Yankees for two innings Kim was handed the game ball by Mark Grace. In a moment of obvious catharsis, Kim proceeded to launch the ball from the mound area, deep into left field, easily clearing the wall and landing in the netting protecting Monument Park.

Kim finished the season by setting the franchise single-season record for save with 36.

Unfortunately for both Kim and the Diamondbacks, Kim became obsessed with the idea of moving to the rotation, as he was convinced doing so was the only way he could garner true recognition or earn big money. The Diamondbacks gave in, and slotted Kim into the rotation for 2003. The results were mixed. The extra workload decreased his strikeout rate, but he still managed to pitch to a 132 ERA+ on the back of a 3.56 ERA. However, after seven outings, his record stood at 1-5. Furthermore, the team had other, established starters in Johnson, Schilling, and newcomer Brandon Webb, to go with Elmer Dessens and Miguel Batista. The decision was made to trade Kim to Boston in exchange for third baseman, Shea Hillenbrand. He had a month of starts where he was mostly decent before being bumped back into the bullpen due to Boston’s abundance of veteran pitchers. Once again, he thrived in the bullpen and led the team in saves. His performance was good enough that Boston signed him to a two-year contract as a starter. That did not go so well. In 2004, Kim started the season as the team’s fifth starter, but he had lost six to eight miles per hour off his fastball. He was quickly demoted to AAA Pawtucket, where he remained until coming back up to once again pitch strong out of the bullpen during the stretch run that led into the Red Sox finally winning their first World Series in 86 years, behind the now, semi-legendary performance of former Arizona teammate Curt Schilling. In 2005 Boston sent Kim to Colorado. After one solid and one dismal season in Colorado, he went to Miami, before finally returning to Arizona in 2007 when he was picked up off waivers in August. But it was clear that Kim was done. He pitched two games before being released, being picked up once again by the Marlins to finish out the season. He did finish the season with 34 strikeouts across 34 innings, despite only throwing in the low 80s. Kim spent the next three seasons floating from one minor league team to another before finally returning to Korea in 2011. He is now retired from baseball.

While many will remember Kim more for blowing two saves in the 2001 World Series more than anything else, when Kim was a dedicated reliever, he was one of the very best in the game. A full seven seasons after Kim disappeared from major league baseball, future Hall of Famer and member of the 3,000 hit club, Adrian Beltre, had this to say:

“The toughest pitcher I ever faced was Byung-hyun Kim. That guy was uncomfortable for me. I couldn’t pick up. He threw under. I was 0 for 20 with like 15 strikeouts. It was a nightmare.”