Kim won't lay down on starting job

Originally Published: March 12, 2003
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Forget the obvious adjustments necessary in switching from a closer role to a starter: the change in routine, the difference in approach, the increase in pitch load. The biggest challenge Arizona closer Byung-Hyun Kim may face in becoming a starter is staying awake for nine entire innings.

Byung-Hyun Kim
Byung-Hyun Kim, who has 70 saves in four seasons, was a starting pitcher in Korea.
"I've never seen any man sleep as much as he does. Nobody else comes close. He sleeps all the time,'' Arizona first baseman Mark Grace said. "I've never seen anything like it. Lee Smith used to sleep during games. They'd wake him up in the seventh inning, and he'd yawn and wipe the sleep from his eyes and walk out to the bullpen, but he couldn't touch BK when it comes to sleeping.

"He's asleep right now. He's in deep REM. He's lying there with saliva coming out of his mouth. If North Korea poured over the border, he wouldn't even know it. He'd go, 'What's all the noise? Keep it down, will you?' "

Mind you, Grace was saying this about one hour before Kim's scheduled start.

"What time will he wake up before he starts?'' Grace asked. "No, what time will they have to wake him up?''

"Sleep feels good,'' Kim said with a grin through a translator. "I love it.''

Kim was a starter in Korea where he developed an old-school approach to pitching. The starting rotation is reserved for good pitchers. The bullpen is for everyone else.

That attitude is changing somewhat in Korea, but it didn't matter to Kim, who wanted to be a starter for Arizona from the day he landed in the United States.

"He was never resistant to being the closer,'' former Arizona bench coach Bob Melvin said, "but you knew his passion was starting.''

At the time, however, the Diamondbacks had greater need for a relief pitcher than a starter, and Kim wound up in the bullpen his rookie season in 2000. When Arizona closer Matt Mantei underwent Tommy John surgery, Kim slid into the closer roll, saving 55 games the past two seasons.

Now that Mantei is ready to return as closer -- he's been throwing in the upper 90s this spring -- Arizona has the luxury of switching Kim back to a starter, just as the Reds are doing with Danny Graves.

This is a good move. The ever-narrowing closer role has become the most overrated and costly position in baseball. A Total Baseball survey found that close late-inning leads were protected with the same success in 1952, 1972 and 1992 regardless of how you used your bullpen.

So why pay a fortune for a closer if he can be more valuable as a starter?

" (Kim) can certainly manage pitch counts from 100-120, but the key is he doesn't throw them all by the fourth inning. "
 Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr.

"The measuring stick is this,'' said Arizona general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. "BK is really good pitching out of the bullpen, so if he's just going to be marginal as a starter, how have you improved the team? If he's just OK as a starter but would be very good setting up and the person who's job BK would be taking as a starter is better out of the rotation than he is in the bullpen, then why make that switch and weaken yourself at two positions? The answer is you wouldn't.

"But if BK is successful, that's such a different look from what Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling give you. That could be very, very effective.''

Can Kim make the switch? Of course. Sure, Rick Aguilera broke down with injuries when the Twins shifted him from closer to starter several years ago, but Aguilera was prone to that sort of thing already (he once injured his wrist while lifting a suitcase).

But Kim is a different case. He's younger (24), not as far removed from his starting days and is infamous for having the resiliency of Silly Putty. Asian pitchers throw far more pitches and more often than their Western Hemisphere counterparts.

Kim says he threw 200 pitches in a game on one-day rest as a high school pitcher.

"We have two to three batboys, and he would come to the ballpark and play catch with all of them,'' Arizona manager Bob Brenly said. "He would throw 50, 60, 70 pitches at about 75 percent (effort). He would throw sliders, he would throw sinkers, he would throw changeups. Then he would go into the indoor cages and play catch with someone if he could find someone. If not, he would grab a bucket of balls and just throw against the backstop. God knows how many he would throw, but you would hear the ball whacking off the wall for a long time.

"After games when he didn't pitch, he would throw some more. Even if he did pitch, he would go and throw some more. I saw him in the shower one time in Kansas City working on his delivery.''

As Garagiola says, "He can certainly manage pitch counts from 100-120, but the key is he doesn't throw them all by the fourth inning.''

To do so, Kim acknowledges he must change his pitching approach.

D-BACKS' ROTATION
Pitcher 2002 numbers
Randy Johnson 24-5, 2.32 ERA
Curt Schilling 23-7, 3.23 ERA
*Elmer Dessens 7-8, 3.03 ERA
John Patterson 2-0, 3.23 ERA
**Byung-Hyun Kim 8-3, 2.04 ERA
* -- pitched for Cincinnati
** -- zero starts; 36 saves

"As a closer I can focus on one batter,'' he said. "But as a starter, I need to control the power. It's more difficult.''

"As a closer, it's not unreasonable for him to expect to retire everyone he faces. Well, as I've made the observation, starters don't do that,'' Garagiola said. "That's why we buy gloves for these guys. Let your fielders make plays. Giving up a hit, giving up a run, is not some (indicator) of failure. That's what happens to starters. So what if you give up a run? Your teammates can come back and score more runs. The point is to keep your composure and manage the pitch count.

"If he does both those things, there's no reason this can't work.''

Kim pitched poorly his first start this spring but followed that up with consecutive outings of four scoreless innings. To improve his effectiveness against his left-handed hitters, he's been working on his changeup and slider, and that's helped.

Another adjustment is mental. Kim likes pitching a lot. And often. But he'll have to get used to a five-man rotation.

"If I fail, I have to wait four days for another chance,'' he said. "If I failed as a closer, I could come back the next day.''

On the other hand, it gives him four solid days of REM.

"This could be good for his sleep patterns,'' Garagiola said. "He won't have to deal with any pesky phone calls to the bullpen.''

"Shoot, we barely saw him when he was a closer,'' Arizona left fielder Luis Gonzalez said. "Now we'll probably see him the day he starts and then not again for four days.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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