Hong-Chih Kuo was 17 years old when the Dodgers signed him to a $1.2-million bonus in 1999, making him the first Taiwanese player signed out of high school by a major-league team.
It’s been a wild ride ever since for the left-hander, who today signed a one-year, major-league contract with the Mariners.
In his very first professional game, pitching for San Bernardino in the California League in April of 2000, Kuo struck out seven of the 10 batters he faced. He was completely overpowering. Only two batters put the ball in play, and those were weak grounders. The Orange County Register quoted Scott Akasaki, an assistant in the Dodgers’ Asian operattions department, on the performance: “I remember calling my dad after the game. His favorite player was Sandy Koufax. I said, ‘”Dad, I know I never saw Sandy Koufax. But I just saw Hong-Chih Kuo‘”
But on one of the final batters he faced that night, Kuo felt something pop in his elbow. Turns out he had torn a ligament and needed Tommy John surgery, the start of a string of medical issues that have been interspersed with the sort of domination he hinted at that night.
All told, Kuo, now 30, has had five elbow operations, including a rare second Tommy John procedure. His most recent surgery occurred this past October and was an arthroscopic procedure to remove a loose body. He’s had six stints on the disabled list — the most recent of which, last May, was for an anxiety disorder. It was the second time Kuo had experienced what most media accounts out of Los Angeles have described as “the yips” — an inability to throw strikes that has been likened to similar experiences by the likes of Steve Blass and Rick Ankiel.
But unlike those two, Kuo came back from the first case in 2009 — which resulted in him throwing warmup pitches completely out of the Dodgers bullpen, stopping play in the game — to have a brilliant season in 2010. He may well have been the best reliever in baseball that year, with a 1.20 ERA and 12 saves (in 13 opportunitites) in 56 games. He made the All-Star team. Lefties didn’t stand a chance, hitting .095 (6-for-63). But righties didn’t fare much better (.159).
Then, last year, was another regression, and Kuo was placed on the DL on April 16, ostensibly with lower back strain. But MLB.com wrote, “His back does have an issue, but apparently he also has a relapse of the yips. During pitchers’ fielding practice on Friday, two of Kuo’s throws to second base sailed and bounced into center field. He tried to warm up in the bullpen during the eighth inning of a blowout loss and wasn’t able to throw a strike, prompting the decision to recall right-hander Ramon Troncoso and put Kuo back on the disabled list.”
He went on the DL again in May with what this time was termed anxiety disorder.
“He couldn’t put the ball where he needed to,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “That’s pretty much what he said. I listened to him, and I have so much respect for him, after all he’s been through. It’s just one of those things.”
Here’s what Mattingly had to say about Kuo’s physical health in an ESPN.com article: “When you’re talking about Kuo, he is basically always hurting. It’s just at what level. His elbow is always hurting. It never goes away, really. It’s just how much he can deal with. It’s always there.”
But Kuo — called “The Cockroach” by the Dodgers medical staff for the way he keeps coming back from career-threatening injuries — came back again, this time in June. He pitched in 40 games last year; not particularly well, compiling a 9.00 ERA, with 23 walks in 27 innings. But Kuo still struck out 36 in those 25 innings, a testament to stuff that can still be overpowering. In his career, Kuo has struck out 345 in 292 1/3 innings. His rate of strikeouts per nine innings (10.6) is the same as Randy Johnson’s major-league record for pitchers with at least 1,000 innings.
In September, Kuo said he wasn’t even sure if he would play again in 2012. He told MLB.com, “I needed a break. I love baseball and that’s why I keep going. If I want to still play and somebody wants to give me a try, I play. If not, fine with me. I’ll miss it. But I don’t want to play unless I enjoy it again.”
The Mariners are giving Kuo a try. His history shows there are undeniable risks, but also that the potential upside can be tremendous.