Can Lee Yi-ri continue the Tigers’ ace narrative?
Yang Hyun-jong is the signature pitcher of the KIA Tigers. Since joining the organization in 2007, he has won 164 games as a member of the Kia One Club. All of them were starts. Until last year, he pitched 170 innings for eight consecutive years. This is a record for a Korean pitcher. He’s done his job as a starter. Probably third in line behind Sun Dong-yeol (No. 18) and Lee Jong-beom (No. 7), the “Musan Bomber” and “Baseball Genius,” No. 54 will be in the disabled list.
This year, there have been a number of worrying symptoms. In 19 games, he has pitched 106⅔ innings. That’s just over 5-6 innings per game. Only six quality starts. He has a 4.39 ERA, a 3.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a 1.55 WHIP. That’s a career low by any metric since he became a starter.
He gave up a lot of runs in one game. After giving up nine runs in two innings against Sajik Lotte and seven runs in 4⅔ innings against Incheon SSG in early June, he gave up eight runs on nine hits in two innings against LG Electronics in Gwangju on June 8, despite the game being called a no-game due to heavy rain. After another six days of recharging, he appeared against the Gwangju Kiwoom on the 15th, but gave up seven runs in 5⅔ innings. He was eventually removed from the roster on the 16th to give him time to adjust.
Most people are blaming the drop in velocity. Early in his 15-day stint, he was up to 147 mph, but his fastball averaged only 140 mph. He couldn’t maintain his velocity. As his velocity dropped, so did the sharpness of his slider and changeup. “The vertical movement has decreased,” Kim explained. His changeup also had less drop.
Yang Hyun-jong has been leading the way on the mound since 2014. Except for the 2021 season, when he tried out for the major leagues, he was the undisputed ace until May of this year. He started his ace narrative in 2017 with a 1-0 shutout in Game 2. He went on to win the regular season MVP and Korean Series MVP, earning the title of ace. After that, he continued to pitch over 170 innings and soothed the hearts of fans, even when the team was unable to play fall baseball.
Yang’s struggles this year were unexpected. It was expected that he wouldn’t be as good as he was in the past due to his age, but this sudden decline in velocity and command was unexpected. There’s also the fact that he was on the WBC team in February, which gave him an early workout. Nevertheless, he is now at an age where the aging curve has to be considered.
The ace, a constant on the mound, is now a variable. Yang will have ten days to recharge his batteries and try to find new clues. The team will need him to play fall baseball. Coach Kim said, “Yang Hyun-jong needs to be resurrected and become a pillar on the mound. He should be able to show his old stuff in his next turn,” Kim said.
Regardless of whether Yang Hyun-jong is resurrected or not, KIA must now prepare for a new, younger ace. Naturally, left-hander Lee Yi-ri has emerged. After a shaky first half with his fastball, Lee has settled down in the second half and is pitching six innings of quality starts. He has a 150+ mph fastball, changeup, slider, and curveball. His secondary pitches are becoming more powerful.
He has won 10 games in two consecutive years and is on his way to becoming an ace. Based on his performance in his third year, it’s hard to say that Lee’s progress is slow, but there’s a sense of unease in the air. Even his commander didn’t give him the ace title right after he won 10 games, saying, “There’s still something uneasy about him.” Lee’s ace narrative hasn’t happened. Yang Hyun-jong gave him a task. 토토