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The Mystery that is Byung-Hyun Kim

Byung-Hyun KimYou may know Byung-Hyun Kim best as "that guy with the ugly windup." Or maybe you know Kim as "that guy that flipped Sox fans the bird." Or maybe, just maybe, you know him as "that guy with a hell of a lot of potential." Just make sure one thing: don't give up on him yet.

The 26-year old submariner from South Korea has had his share of ups and downs over his brief, six-year career. At the tender age of 20, Kim appeared in 25 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, compiling a not-so-tender 4.61 ERA. The following year was when he made his mark as one of the best young relievers in the game. He went 6-6 with a 4.46 ERA, but the stat that stands out the most is his 111 strikeouts in 70.2 innings pitched, a 14.1 K/9. All of this occurred at the age of 21, too. The last person to appear in as many games (61) as he did at the age of 21 was Pedro Martinez in 1993.

2001 was an even better season for the now three-year veteran. His K/9 dropped to around 10.4, but his ERA made a huge jump and he finished the season at 2.94, which was even better than the then-ace Curt Schilling (2.98). His success was impressive, but when the 2001 World Series came, Kim was a different man.

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. Six and a third innings, one hit, no runs was his combined total. But when the New York Yankees lined up in the batters box against Kim in the World Series, Kim just lost it.

Game four and the Diamondbacks are up 3-1 when Schilling comes out in the 8th inning. Kim takes the mound and with two outs in the bottom of the 9, he feeds a pitch to Tino Martinez that would tie up the game. Mentally, Kim lost it right there. Diamondback's management didn't lose faith, though, and kept Kim in the game for extra-innings. In the 10th inning, Kim did it again: Derek Jeter hit a home run to win the game and tie the series.

If the Diamondbacks were to lose the World Series, Kim would most definitely become "the goat."

Kim was back to redeem himself on November 1st when he came into save the ballgame in the 9th inning. Would he repeat? Or would he save the game and give the Diamondbacks the edge in the World Series? This is what happened, according to RetroSheet.org:

YANKEES 9TH: BAUTISTA REPLACED GONZALEZ (PLAYING LF); KIM
REPLACED SWINDELL (PITCHING); Posada doubled to left; Spencer
grounded out (third to first); Knoblauch struck out; Brosius
homered [Posada scored]; MORGAN REPLACED KIM (PITCHING); Soriano
flied to left; 2 R, 2 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Diamondbacks 2, Yankees 2.

Repeat.

Fortunately for him, the Diamondbacks won games six and seven without the help of their incapable closer. Goat no more.

Ever since the 2001 World Series, Kim has not been the same pitcher when it came to big games. Kim actually had a great 2002 season, finishing with a 2.04 ERA. When it came to the 2002 Divisional Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Kim performed like the previous post-season and gave up two runs in one inning work, leaving with a 18.00 ERA.

Was he goat then? No. Just a pitcher who couldn't cut it come the post-season.

For the past season and a half, Kim has been a Red Sox after a trade that sent fan-favorite Shea Hillenbrand to the desert. Kim, looking back, was the best reliever for the 2003 Sox. He compiled a 3.18 ERA and led the closer-less team in saves with 16. The postseason, you ask? Two thirds of an inning, one earned run, and a blown save against the Oakland Athletics in game one of the ALDS. The Sox lost.

I don't even want to say the "G" word.

Last season was a new season though. We resigned Kim to a huge two-year, ten million dollar contract to be our fifth starter in the rotation. Come to find out, though, Kim lost a little velocity on his fastball. Wait. A little? Let's rephrase: about six to eight miles an hour on that fastball. And when you lose that much off your fastball (see: Pedro Martinez), you aren't nearly as effective.

So our ten million dollar man lost a little velocity and lost his spot on the big-club. We spent five million dollars on him last season, just so he could amass a 5.34 ERA in 22 games for Pawtucket. Kim also moonlighted to South Korea to see an arm specialist, but when he returned the results weren't any different. At the end of 2004 we were still left with a five million dollar submariner, topping out at 84 miles an hour who can't beat triple-A teams.

A season after the Red Sox did the unthinkable, and proved the critics wrong, Kim is back to do the same thing to his own critics. Has he regained that 90-mile and hour fastball? Can he handle the pressure of playing in Boston? Is he mentally healthy enough to take the mound in a big game and deliver? I, for one, would like to see him get a chance.

Last night was Kim's first chance to prove himself worthy of a roster spot and, surprisingly, his outing lacked any mishaps. He pitched a perfect third inning, not allowing any base runners. The only thing that could have blemished his outing was a couple of deep flies that went for outs.

With only one spot in the bullpen up for grabs (pending injuries), Kim is the front-runner at the moment. He'll be competing with pitchers Lenny DiNardo, Anastacio Martinez and Mark Malaska, to name his main competition. While spring has just started, and his performance in 2004 was extremely poor, Kim still receives a lot of praise from the highest of places.

"He's capable of playing a dominant role on the staff. Obviously, he has the stuff to be a difference-maker," said general manager Theo Epstein.

Well, if Theo has faith, then I have faith. Because if there are two things that I have learned in the sports world, one is to never doubt Bill Belichick (New England Patriots Head Coach) and two is to never doubt Theo Epstein.

Kim has been subject to many trade reports over the past few weeks, and some are speculating that his appearances in spring training games are just to add value to his stock. I can't help but agree with those who are speculating. Epstein would rather have a single-A prospect worth very little money with some future in him, then Kim who has potential to be great that is costing the team five million dollars.

I'm not giving up faith yet on Kim. Kim needs to regain his velocity and hit the corners of the plate. He needs to strike fear in batters like he did in 2001 and 2002. That windup a long can do the job, but if he can't throw 90 MPH then it's useless.

He still has talent left in that body. For being 26, his years aren't even close to being over. But if he doesn't get over his mental stability problems on the mound, then he won't be playing much longer.

Let's give Kim one more season to prove himself - prove himself to those members of Red Sox Nation who have already given up on him. One more spring training. If he does well, then one more regular season. And, hopefully, we can give him one more post-season after that to completely evaluate him.

If it's not too early to give up on Kim, then it's not too late to believe in him either.