A two-strike no-ball with two runners on in the sixth inning. A home run with his team leading 1-0. You’re just one out away from being the winning pitcher, but your mistake costs you the lead. You’re disappointed, but you smile. The same goes for taking a hit or leaving a runner on base. He faces the next batter with a smile on his face, and then drives the ball back down the line. This is the story of Yoon Young-chul, a nineteen-year-old left-handed pitcher who won the starting job for the KIA Tigers just two months after his professional debut.

Known as a “lefty ace” since his high school days, Yoon was selected by KIA with the second overall pick in the first round of the 2023 KBO Draft. He has started all eight games he has played since making his professional debut on 15 April. He had a rough rookie year, but he has adapted quickly and is growing into a formidable pitcher. His innings have gradually increased and he is now consistently going five innings or more. His ERA, which was 4.85 in April, dropped to 2.03 in May. In his most recent start, on the 31st of May, he pitched 5⅓ innings of one-run ball against the KT Wiz to pick up his third win of the season.메이저사이트

I met Yoon at a café in Dunsan-dong, Daejeon, on the 25th of last month. It was the day after he overcame a last-minute home run threat to record his first career quality start (QS – 6+ innings, 3 earned runs or less). When I congratulate him, he shakes his head with regret. “I’m happy, but honestly, I’m more disappointed,” he says, and then dwells on the moment of his disastrous outing: “I was trying to get the ball out of the zone, but it went up the middle and I got a home run.”

While he may not seem to be too concerned about his pitches, Yoon is quick to analyse them when they don’t go as planned. He prefers to trust his instincts on the mound and his catcher’s judgement rather than video analysis. “There’s a lot more you can’t see on film,” he says. “There’s a lot of things you can’t see on film,” he says, “like the distance to the plate, the size of the swing, things that are unique to each hitter. I’ll look at that on the mound, and then I’ll pick a pitch that I know I’m not going to hit, and I’ll throw it. I always trust my catcher the first time I see a hitter.”

Any game is bound to be nerve-wracking at the start. “The first innings is always the key,” he says. Again, analysis comes first. “The first inning is all about analysing,” he says, “aiming at the catcher’s chest arm, looking at the strike calls of the day and adjusting the zero by taking out balls one by one. Once the centripetal force is understood, the next pitch is easy. “If I get through the first inning well, I don’t feel nervous,” Yoon laughs.

Of course, there are times when things go wrong in the first inning. Such was the case in his debut against the Kiwoom Heroes on 15 April, when Yoon gave up five runs in the first inning after drawing a nine-pitch walk against leadoff hitter Lee Yong-kyu. He was removed from the game in the fourth inning and was all smiles as he walked off the mound. It’s a habit of Yoon’s to calm himself down. “I try to shake it off as soon as possible,” he said of his bad games. This means that mind control is as important as analysing the pitch.

“If I get a hit, I’ll ask the catcher if it’s up the middle, and if he says yes, I’ll say, ‘I’ve got to throw better next time,’ and if it’s a good pitch and the batter hits it well, I’ll say, ‘The batter hit it well,’ and I try to change my mindset to a good one as quickly as possible.”

“I think the reason why you see me smiling a lot on the mound is because I’m trying to relax. When I’m facing a batter, I think to myself, ‘This is going to be fun.’ If I have a straight face, I look nervous, so I smile on purpose. When I was younger, I used to get scolded a lot for smiling. My coaches from elementary school used to tell me, ‘Why are you always smiling,’ but now it’s a habit, so I think it comes naturally.”

In fact, Yoon’s strengths are more often cited as his reliable pitches and his ability to run the game. He doesn’t give up many pitches, and if he does get a foul home run, he’s quick to follow it up with a fastball to the body. “He doesn’t look like a rookie” is a common phrase used to describe the competitiveness of a young professional fresh out of high school.

The source of his confidence is his fastball. “If my pitches are good, I can run the game well and throw fewer pitches,” Yoon said, citing his fastball as his biggest strength. The secret is ‘targeting practice’, which he has been doing since he was a child. He didn’t start playing baseball in earnest until the second grade, but he’s been close to the game since his hazy childhood. On weekends, he and his family would visit a baseball field in Mokdong, Seoul, near their home, and he would play catch with his older brother in the car park whenever he could. “I would set a target and throw it over and over again,” Yoon recalls.

Ten years later, Yoon is now a young professional athlete, and Kia head coach Kim Jong-kook is happy to see him succeed. “I only need him to give up three runs in five innings,” Kim would say before each start. But every game, Yoon tries to exceed his coach’s expectations. He’s been lifting weights to improve his velocity. He is also working on his curveball, which is difficult to catch. “He is adapting well to the league,” Kim said of Yoon’s performance, “and he has more confidence in his fastball than in the beginning, so he is getting a lot of fouls and false swings.”

According to the coach, Yoon has been receiving a lot of attention from KIA fans since joining the team. Yang Hyun-jong, the ‘big pitcher’, has been the most active in helping him adapt. He also recommended Yoon’s back number. He chose number 13 from a list of options that Yang showed him, saying it was worn by famous left-handed pitchers.

“As soon as I picked the number, he (Hyun-jong) said, ‘So you’re going to wear this number until you retire?’ So I’m going to do that as much as possible.”

He was cautious when asked about being a favourite for Rookie of the Year. “I can’t afford to think about the competition because I’m too busy playing my game,” Yoon said. As for fellow Hanwha Eagles pitcher Kim Seo-hyun, he said, “Seo-hyun is in a different position and throws a different type of pitch,” adding, “I would rather have Yang Hyun-jong and Lee Yi-ri from the same team.

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