Hekken is Nexen’s biggest hero
“Everything on the scouting report was incorrect when we saw him pitching in the camp,” said Heroes Manager Yeom Kyung-yeop. “Our coaching staff thought we were in big trouble because he had to be the second pitcher in the rotation, but his fastball speed was only about 130 kilometers per hour [80 miles per hour].”
Not many people, including his own coaches, expected Van Hekken to survive in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). But against all odds, he has stuck around and has been one of the best starting pitchers in the league this season with a league-dominating record of 15-4 and an ERA of 2.79.
The 35-year-old U.S. import is considered the strongest contender for the Gold Glove award, which is given to the best performer in each position in the KBO, along with SK Wyverns ace Kim Kwang-hyun (11-6/3.19 ERA) and Kia Tigers ace Yang Hyun-jong (12-5/3.75 ERA).
“I felt like we were fighting against Clayton Kershaw [of the Los Angeles Dodgers],” said LG Twins Manager Yang Sang-moon after they were shutout by Hekken through eight innings in an 8-0 loss on Saturday at their home in Jamsil Stadium, southeastern Seoul.
“He definitely is the best starting pitcher in the league for sure.”
Saturday’s game wasn’t just another win for Hekken - it was his 12th consecutive win. It also set a new KBO record for a starting pitcher. With fastballs ranging between 143 and 146 kilometers per hour and forkballs, the lefty toyed the Twins hitters through eight innings. He only allowed five hits while striking out five and walking one.
The KBO yesterday named Hekken the MVP pitcher for July, after he won four games with an ERA of 2.70. He will receive a 2 million won ($1,930) bonus prior to the Heroes’ game against the Samsung Lions today at their home in Mokdong Stadium, western Seoul.
Hekken marked 11-8 with an ERA of 3.28 in his KBO debut season, and there was debate among the Heroes’ front office over whether they should extend his contract.
“He was more like a Jamie Moyer type of pitcher,” Heroes Manager Yeom recalled. “Since his fastballs weren’t as fast as they were this season, he had trouble dealing with hitters when his breaking balls didn’t work well.”
But the Heroes found that his fastballs have gotten faster throughout the seasons.
“It almost doesn’t happen to a pitcher in his mid-30s,” Yeom said. “He didn’t even have a Tommy John surgery or change his pitching mechanism, but it just got faster month after month. [He] then started hitting in the low 140-kilometer range last season then hitting mid-140s this season.”
Yeom added that he eventually found the secrets of those slow fastballs that worried the team in the 2012 season.
“He in fact played for the whole year without having an offseason break in the winter to earn more money when he played in the minor leagues,” he said. “After finishing a season in the United States, he played in a winter league in South America. He told me that he did it for more than seven years in a row before he joined the Heroes.”
After finishing the 2012 season, Hekken enjoyed his first winter vacation in several years and it made him healthier and stronger.
“Since it is his third season in the KBO, I think he has finished studying Korean hitters and even umpires when I see him pitching on the mound,” said baseball analyst Kim Jung-jun. “In the past season, he sometimes had a hard time getting a count even though he was ahead in ball count like 0-2 or 1-2, but he is more aggressive and doesn’t even hesitate to throw a put-away pitch in a 0-2 count. He definitely is one of the strongest season MVP contenders with his teammates Kang Jung-ho and Park Byung-ho.”
BY kwon sang-soo [email@example.com]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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