Kim's actions reveal more than a minor problem
He is 25 years old with a spinning, vexing sidearm delivery that, when right, tends to flummox even the best major league hitters. When he's on, he throws 94 miles per hour, and he throws strikes.
So why, after only three cracks as Boston's fifth starter, was pitcher Byung Hyun Kim banished to Pawtucket?
And why was hardly anyone in the Red Sox clubhouse unhappy about it?
You had to wonder why the team demoted Kim so quickly after Monday night's 10-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians. Truth was, the Red Sox brass had already decided to ship Kim out after the first inning, when he was rocked for two doubles and a bullet single off the Wall. He gave up two runs, but it might have been more had Brian Daubach not gunned down Travis Hafner trying to stretch his shot off the Wall into a double. Kim's pitches were clocked in the mid-to-low 80s, and it was apparent his velocity was not where it should be.
Thus, Kim's rocky tenure with the Red Sox has taken another downturn. Although brimming with talent, his stubborn refusal to deviate from his rigid workout regime has not only alienated teammates who have tried to help him, it has frustrated the front office and the coaching staff as they continue to attempt to tap his obvious potential.
"His assimilation has been an even bigger challenge than we thought," conceded general manager Theo Epstein last night. "But he's important to our team. If we're going to be successful as an organization, we have to find ways to get the best out of everybody, including players with different backgrounds.
"But he has a responsibility, too. He's been around long enough and had enough success and failure to recognize what kind of adjustments he needs to make."
Kim was understandably angry when notified he'd be spending the foreseeable future in Triple A. But is he willing to pull back on his almost maniacal workout habits? He is known to run laps in the darkened Fenway outfield after he pitches. He resists pulling back on his pitching work between starts, despite entreaties from his coaches, and what sure looks like a "tired" arm. This so-called "Red Army" mentality is common among Asian athletes, including those in his native Korea, where there is no such thing as working too hard.
"He works his butt off," confirmed catcher Doug Mirabelli. "How can you say someone works too hard? But his success is related directly to velocity."
Yet Kim's problems with the Sox run deeper than his sudden loss of steam. He is pitching alongside two of the greatest pitchers in the game, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. He pitches alongside a guy (Derek Lowe) who threw a no-hitter. He is part of a rotation that includes a gutsy knuckleballer (Tim Wakefield) who has made a living out of being crafty and resourceful. All have been willing to help, but their suggestions are often met with stony silence. A language barrier issue? Players say Kim's English is better than he lets on. If he won't listen to his own decorated pitching staff, who, exactly, will he listen to?
Center fielder Johnny Damon said Kim's single-minded approach to pitching has made it close to impossible to establish a relationship with him.
"It's pretty easy to mix in with this team," said Damon, "but his focus is on baseball, 24 [hours a day], 7 [days a week]. It can drive you batty. He does need to loosen up.
"He also needs to find his rhythm, so we don't fall asleep behind him. He threw a lot of pitches the other night, and sometimes he missed his spots by 2 feet. It's hard to be in synch with him when you're expecting a fastball away, and he throws a fastball in. He's also throwing about 7 to 8 miles an hour slower now.
"Guys try to help, but he's got his own mind made up now. Where he grew up, they throw the baseball a lot. I don't think we can say what is right or wrong.
"You don't ever see him on the road except at the park. And, when you see him, he's working on his mechanics. We want him to play PlayStation with us."
Maybe this little sojourn to Pawtucket will serve as his wake-up call. The Red Sox sure hope so. They are on the hook for $10 million over the next two years, and, with five key players unsigned at the end of the season, that money sure could come in handy if Kim can't cut it here.
"All I know is I saw him pitch in the National League," said pitching coach Dave Wallace. "He threw aggressively, and he threw routinely 94, 95, and 96 miles an hour. If he didn't walk you, he struck you out.
"Obviously something has been lost. He says he needs an opportunity to get himself right. We said, `OK, but we can't afford that opportunity to be here anymore.' "
Asked if he had addressed Kim about his unwillingness to adjust his training regimen, Wallace said, "Yes, we did. But I understand the culture as well. I've had a number of different guys from Japan, from Korea. Their work ethic is ingrained. I had Chan Ho Park talk to him about it.
"But you know what? It's like raising kids. Some kids have to learn the hard way. The bottom line is to learn the lesson. Hopefully he'll get there."
If not, you've got to figure there are teams out there without Boston's pitching depth, mesmerized by that spinning, sidearm delivery, the radar gun that reads 94, and a birth certificate that reads Jan. 19, 1979.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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