Rookie Kim Gun-hee (19) is considered an indispensable resource for the new Kium Heroes without Lee Jung-hoo (25) and Ahn Woo-jin (24).굿모닝토토 도메인
He has the hardware and the tools. As a catcher in Wonju, he had an average pop time of 1.81 seconds at second base and a high of 1.76 seconds. Second base pop time is the time it takes for a catcher to receive the ball from the pitcher and throw straight to second base, and an average of 1.81 seconds is rarely seen in the major leagues. On the mound, he throws a fastball up to 151 kilometers per hour. Even though it was his first time on the mound in three years, he showed a quick command of his pitches, including a slider, curveball, and circle changeup, which drew attention at the time of his draft as a player who could be the next Shohei Ohtani, 29, of Kiwoom.
The 2023 season, his rookie year, was a rough one for Kim as he realized the barriers of the professional game. In three games with the first team, she pitched to a 22.50 ERA with six hits (two home runs), two walks, and five strikeouts in two innings, and batted .182 (2-for-11) with two walks and four strikeouts in nine games.
“I didn’t throw much on the mound as I went out more as a beast, but I felt that there was a big difference between good and bad pitches every time I went up,” Kim told Star News during the final camp in Wonju, Gangwon Province. “Still, there was such a big difference that I could definitely see what I needed to improve.”
On the surface, it’s the batting that has been the most fruitful. In the Futures League, Kim batted .254 (35-for-138) with one home run, 19 RBIs, 14 walks and 44 strikeouts in 47 games, and as a pitcher, he went 2-0 with a 9.69 ERA in 14 games, allowing 14 hits (five home runs), 14 walks and eight strikeouts in 13 innings. At the time he was drafted, Kim was a bit more of a catcher and outfielder than a pitcher, a position he abruptly started after three years due to injury.
However, both the organization and the players themselves have put a little more weight on the pitching side. Kiwoom head coach Hong Won-ki put the odds of a two-hitter at “51/49” during the final camp, favoring the pitcher. Kim Gun-hee said, “It’s the same for both pitchers and batters to feel a wall in the pros. However, I would like to go beyond that limit as a pitcher. I think my strength is my shoulder, not my bat. I don’t have many shoulder or elbow injuries. It’s up to the club to decide, but since I’ve come to the pros, I’ve gotten a little more attached to pitching.”
The first-round rookie was torn between pitching and hitting, but it was an unusual home run off Park Byung-ho (37-KT Wiz) that sparked his passion for pitching. On July 13, Kim pitched the top of the ninth inning against KT in Gochuk and gave up back-to-back home runs to Park Byung-ho and Kim Jun-tae. Against Park Byung-ho, he induced two false swings with a fastball, then threw a high fastball on a full count for a solo shot to left-center field.
“Every time I came out this year (even though I only pitched two innings in the first team), there were seniors like Kang Baek-ho, Heo Kyung-min, and Park Byung-ho,” Kim said. “Especially Park Byung-ho, I got a home run, and that experience was really valuable for me. I thought it was better to be hit than to be too tight, and in the end, I got a home run without giving up a walk. I threw with a lot of heart, but my pitch must have been light for the seniors who had been hit by so many good pitches.”
Based on this experience, Kim focused on improving her fastball and perfecting her changeup while pitching and hitting at the same time in the final camp. Her experience at the plate helped her understand the pitcher’s mindset and work on her timing. “In the first year, I promised myself that even if I got a hit or a home run, I would trust my fastball and throw it strongly, and in the second year, I wanted to refine it a little more,” Kim said. “While throwing this year, I felt that fastballs are good, but I need to have at least two changeups to maximize the advantages of my fastball, so now I am focusing on my slider and changeup. I’ve been working hard as a hitter as well as a pitcher, so I think that will help me no matter what I choose to do in the future. It was a very meaningful camp for me.”
Luckily, there are many seniors on the team that he can turn to for advice and role models. “It’s not easy to throw 150 kilometers (even before your debut). He has great talent,” said pitching coach Lee Seung-ho, referring to Kim Jae-woong (25), Kim Jae-yoon (33-Samsung Lions) and Park Young-hyun (20-KT). All four pitchers have excellent vertical movement on their fastballs, making them more difficult for hitters to hit despite their lack of velocity.
“Coach Lee Seung-ho and Song Shin-young (SSG) really taught me a lot,” Kim said. Coach Lee showed me a video of (Kim) Jae-woong throwing and said that he wants me to be a pitcher who can catch hitters with a fastball like (Park) Young-hyun and (Kim) Jae-yoon. So, in this camp, I’m focusing on putting power on the ball.”
Whether as a hitter or pitcher, Kim is a resource that needs to be looked at in the long term. She needs to improve her defense at catcher and first base, and she’s a pitcher who spent her entire high school career as a surprise appearance in nine games (1.29 ERA in 13⅔ innings) as a junior. It’s something the team knew when they drafted him. It’s encouraging to see a pitcher’s potential recognized in such a small sample size in his first professional season.
Above all, it shows that the player is interested in pitching and is willing to settle into the first team before it’s too late. Kim said, “I was really grateful when (Ahn) Woo-jin told me that he got hit a lot in his first and second years. He encouraged me that I can grow if I think more deeply about baseball.” “I want to catch the seniors (who I played against this year) someday. They are all hitters who represent Korea, and if I try to catch all of them, I can grow myself. Woo Jin-hyung told me that he also made some progress in his fourth or fifth year. I’m going to try to get results by the fourth year no matter what, so I’m not going to be lazy and I’m going to work harder.” He showed his determination.