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June 7, 2000

Doctoring The Numbers

Byung-Hyun Kim

by Rany Jazayerli

Byung-Hyun Kim arrived on American soil last spring and brought a new pitch, the submarine slider, with him. This year, he's proving that his cup of coffee last season--just 20 hits allowed in 28 innings while striking out 31--was no fluke. Though he lost the Diamondbacks' game on Sunday, allowing his first home run of the season in the process, Kim has a 2.03 ERA in his rookie season, allowing just 15 hits in 27 innings with an amazing 45 strikeouts.

Kim's ratio of 15.19 strikeouts per nine innings would be a major league record for any pitcher with 25 or more innings:

Name             Year      IP     K     K/9

Billy Wagner 1999 74.2 124 14.95 Armando Benitez 1999 78.0 128 14.77 Billy Wagner 1998 60.0 97 14.55 Billy Wagner 1997 66.1 106 14.38 Rob Dibble 1992 70.1 110 14.08

Kim has been so effective that despite his lack of experience, he was used by Buck Showalter as the Diamondbacks' closer while Matt Mantei was on the DL. Kim already has six saves this season, which is significant because the role of closer is so rarely handed to one so young. Kim is just 21 years old, and closers are almost always 25 or older. In general, any pitcher with an arm good enough to close at a younger age is still a starting pitcher.

The most career saves by a pitcher before age 23:

Name             Saves

Terry Forster 70 Billy McCool 48 Victor Cruz 31 Neil Allen 30 Gregg Olson 27

Terry Forster is primarily remembered for his weight and his offensive prowess, as in "that fat tub of goo can hit." Forster's .397 career average in 78 at-bats is a major-league record for anyone with more than 45 at-bats. But as a rookie in 1972, Forster saved 29 games, posted a 2.25 ERA and tossed 100 innings without allowing a single home run.

Since 1980, only two pitchers as young as Kim have recorded as many as eight saves: Mitch Williams, with eight in 1986 and Kelvim Escobar, who saved 14 games down the stretch for the Blue Jays in 1997. Escobar, of course, was then moved to the starting rotation the following season and hasn't recorded a save since.

In fact, it is rare for a pitcher so young to be used as a reliever, period. Only 12 pitchers in history have relieved in 60 or more games before they turned 22. The top six:

Name              Relief Appearances

Billy McCool 154 Terry Forster 143 Victor Cruz 93 Erv Palica 82 Dick Welteroth 81 Mitch Williams 80

Erv Palica pitched for the Dodgers in the late 1940s, and held on long enough to pitch for the Orioles in 1955-56. Dick Welteroth was brought to the majors in 1948 by the Washington Senators and quickly dispelled any notions that he was a major-league pitcher, retiring in 1950 with a remarkable 145 walks and 55 strikeouts.

Kim needs only 56 appearances to crack the top five, and has a chance to reach the top three before year's end.

It's hard to get a sense of what Kim's future might bring, as history provides us with so few young, dominating relievers with which to compare him . But consider this: only three relievers age 21 or younger have appeared in 50 or more games in a season and struck out at least a batter an inning: Terry Forster, Billy McCool...and Pedro Martinez.

Hmmm. Maybe Kim's future shouldn't be in the bullpen after all.

Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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