Catching Hyeon-Jong Yang’s First Start and a Delightfully Entertaining Twins-Rangers Game

On Wednesday evening, Texas’ Hyeon-Jong Yang made his first career start. While a low pitch count and a fourth-inning jam limited him to 3.1 innings, the southpaw still managed to impress: He struck out eight and walked only one while missing 15 bats on 37 swings. This was just a spot start in place of injured Kohei Arihara, but it was almost certainly good enough to warrant another look sooner rather than later.

Yang didn’t arrive with the same fanfare as fellow KBO transplant Ha-seong Kim. The 33-year-old had to settle for a minor league deal; he didn’t even make the Rangers’ Opening Day roster. Still, he’s a legend back home in South Korea. With two KBO Series titles, an MVP trophy on the mantle, and numerous international accolades there was little left for him to prove in Gwangju, and he understandably wanted to test his mettle at the highest level while he’s still near the peak of his powers.

I watched several of Yang’s starts last season. His overall numbers weren’t particularly impressive, but he looked much better once he shook off some early-season rust and got his best fastball back. As a command-reliant starter with a low-90s heater, above-average fading change, and functional slider, he seemed like a big leaguer, if not an impact one.

Across his first three games in Texas, Yang’s results have been pretty good. In 12 innings, he’s struck out 13 hitters while allowing only two walks and 10 hits. But while his start against the Twins was mostly encouraging, it also revealed some limitations in his skillset and highlighted the difference in competition between the KBO and the major leagues.

First, let’s look at the homer he allowed to Mitch Garver:

It’s not a bad pitch! He hits the corner, it’s in a spot where Garver traditionally doesn’t do his best work, and it’s a fastball — an offering Garver has really struggled with over the past year. None of that is of much solace when the ball lands in the second deck.

The other hard hit ball Yang gave up followed a similar pattern. Here’s Byron Buxton doubling off the wall an inning later:

The slider isn’t Yang’s best secondary, particularly against righties. But, up 0-1, if you’re going to throw a breaking ball for a strike, it’s hard to beat the location of that backdoor slider. Sometimes you have to tip your cap: Buxton is the game’s best athlete and he’s in the form of his life; good hitters are going to win their share of battles. But this was also the slowest slider Yang threw all night, a 77 mph get-me-over bender on a pitch he’s capable of throwing 3-5 miles per hour harder. In the KBO, you can ease off of the gas and get away with taking a bit off of the ball, even against the circuit’s better hitters. That’s tougher to do in the majors, particularly if you don’t throw all that hard to begin with. Yang’s velo is well below average and his margin for error is tiny.

The other potential stumbling block for Yang is that he has to use all of his arsenal early in games. His fastball is surprisingly effective: Even though he sits in the upper-80s with unremarkable spin characteristics, he commands it well, can spot to all four corners, and he’s a bit unpredictable with how he’ll sequence it. Still, unless you have 80 command or a very unusual movement profile, there are limits to how often you can throw an 89 mph fastball. Yang had success mixing his three primary offerings on his first trip through the order, but he had less luck getting nibbles on balls out of the zone the second time around. He missed 12 bats against his first nine hitters, but only three in the six PA’s after that. It’s just one game, but both the stuff and Yang’s usage of his offspeed suggests that the time-through-the-order penalty could bite him harshly.

Perhaps Chris Woodward’s quick hook gives a hint to how Texas can best use their new lefty. In past years, we’d call him a No. 5, watch him take his battering in the fifth and sixth innings, and more or less leave things there. But in an era with large pitching staffs and more flexibility with how managers use them, there’s a chance for Texas to get creative here. Yang has the durability to stretch out if the Rangers need him to, but it appears he could be pretty effective in some kind of piggy-back or multi-inning relief role.

***

Come for the report, stay for the fun. We don’t really do recaps at FanGraphs, but while we’re here, I’d be remiss to ignore all of the weird stuff this seemingly banal early-May game produced.

First, let’s watch a moment of defensive wizardry:

Sure, it looks like Jorge Polanco clangs one and gets lucky. On closer review though, you can see the brilliance.

Like a good midfielder, he calmly knocks the ball down with his, uh, middle, and then traps it quickly, before sliding it on the deck over to second with his weaker foot, with a soft touch that gets the ball to its destination in time and in a way its easy for Andrelton Simmons to handle. Mesut Özil would be proud, and on a day we were already feeling kinda jaded about arbitrary scoring decisions, I feel like Polanco deserves an assist here.

Second, are you ready for the worst fair/foul call of the year?

On Texas’ broadcast, you could hear sideline reporter Emily Jones blurt out “What???” as soon as the call was made. It got overturned on the field, but not before Adolis García had to sheepishly circle the bases as the umpires sorted everything out. Incidentally, if you can bear with me for a quick aside here, this isn’t even the wildest homer García’s had overturned in the last month. This beautiful slice of chaos was very nearly his first career dinger:

Next up on our Bingo card, we have “run scores on ball ricocheting into dugout off of catcher’s mask”:

The Rangers would go on to add another tally on their way to the win. It was all a bit much for a nonplussed Twins crowd. In the ninth inning, just before the Twins dropped to 11-18 on the year, a man in a Twins jersey and a Diamondbacks hat With Something To Say rushed past security and weighed in with a personnel suggestion for Derek Falvey:

Look, Rocco Baldelli doesn’t have all that much to do with Minnesota’s inexplicable slide. He didn’t ruin Kenta Maeda’s slider and while he has summoned Alex Colomé more often than Twins fans can stomach, the skipper isn’t the guy out there grooving fastballs. It’s too early to panic — the roster is still pretty good — and while the Twins start is undoubtedly frustrating and at least a little concerning, there’s not much to do at this point but ride things out and hope the pitching staff turns things around.

But dammit, is it really baseball if someone isn’t ticked off at the manager? I’m putting Annoyed Twins/Diamondbacks fan in the “nice to have you back” bucket.





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Zachary Erickson
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Zachary Erickson

I know they ended up getting it right, but every Twins fan old enough to remember the 2009 ALDS groaned when they realized it was Phil Cuzzi who missed that foul ball call.