Employing a variety of side-arm and under-hand deliveries to the plate, Kim overpowered hitters with a fiendish collection of fastballs, sliders and curves that obeyed no known laws of physics. His phenomenal strikeout totals earned the 5’11″ right-hander the nickname “The Little Unit”, a nod to his 6’10″ teammate and fellow strikeout master Randy Johnson, “The Big Unit”.
Kim was the youngest player in the majors when the Arizona Diamondbacks brought him up from Double-A El Paso in May 1999. Arizona had signed the South Korean prodigy as a free agent that February, one month after his 20th birthday, and he did nothing but turn heads after joining the team in spring training. “I don’t know how he does it,” said Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams after watching his new teammate demonstrate his assortment of gravity-defying sliders. “He’s got one that drops and one that rises. He’s amphibious.”
Arizona skipper Buck Showalter threw Kim to the wolves in his major-league debut on May 29th at Shea Stadium. Brought in to pitch the bottom of the ninth with the Diamondbacks clinging to an 8-7 lead, Kim retired Edgardo Alfonzo and John Olerud before fanning Mike Piazza to end the game.
Used sparingly the rest of the season, Kim didn’t get a chance to flash his prodigious talent until 2000, when Arizona stopper Matt Mantei opened the season on the disabled list. Thrust into the closer’s role for much of the first half, Kim (or B.K. as his teammates called him) was not only unhittable, but at times untouchable. On two separate occasions he struck out eight consecutive batters over a three-game or four-game stretch, and he once whiffed 11 out of 12 batters over five games. For the year he struck out 111 hitters in just 70 2/3 innings, or more than 14 per nine-innings.
But Kim would also struggle badly in his first full major-league season. After receiving All-Star consideration for his 14 saves and 1.82 ERA over his initial 28 appearances, he pitched so poorly thereafter that the Diamondbacks optioned him to Triple-A Tucson on July 30th. During his stay in Tucson, Kim was used as a starter in an effort to restore his confidence and improve his mechanics, particularly his slow delivery from the stretch. With Mantei re-established as the club’s closer, Kim pitched as a setup men when the club recalled him in August. He even started a game for Arizona after 84 relief appearances, allowing four runs in a 2 1/3 inning no-decision on September 26th at Colorado’s Coors Field.
In 2001 the Diamondbacks turned to Kim again when Mantei was lost for the year to torn elbow ligaments. Kim shared closer duties with rookie Bret Prinz initially, but by season’s end owned the job outright.
Before joining the Diamondbacks, Kim possessed an impressive international resume. Pitching for the Korean National team in 1998 he manhandled the US Olympic squad, striking out 15 batters in 6 2/3 innings. He subsequently helped Korea claim the gold medal in the Asian Games, where he roomed with Dodgers starter and fellow Korean Chan Ho Park. The gold medal allowed Kim to pursue his dreams of playing baseball in the U.S., as it exempted him from his country’s 30-month compulsory military service.