The Baltimore Orioles were in desperate need of an outfielder and Hyun Soo Kim was ready to bring his talents to baseball’s biggest stage. What seemed like a perfect match back in January might finally be taking shape as we swing into June.
The Baltimore Orioles handed the 28-year-old Kim a two-year, $7 million deal to help bring some much-needed protection for Adam Jones and Chris Davis. The anticipation mounted as spring training grew close. Kim played 141 games in the Korean Baseball organization last season, belting 28 homers and driving in 128 runs, while producing an impressive .438 OBP.
Here’s where we encounter the plot twist. Kim struggled to adapt to major league pitching, most notably struggling with fastballs that were even slightly above average. According to Kim, the hardest thrower he ever faced in Korea was Seung-hwan Oh of the St. Louis Cardinals, who averages 92 MPH on his fastball this season. Kim, a career .318 hitter for 10 seasons in the KBO, went hitless in his first 23 at-bats of Grapefruit League action. He quickly pointed out that starting in February instead of January, like they do in the KBO, led to many of his issues at the plate.
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The struggles were so concerning for the Orioles, they wanted to send him to Triple-A to work on his approach. Kim refused the assignment – which was his right due to a clause in his contract – forcing the club to include him on the opening day roster. What’s happened since then has been a story of both perseverance and hard work.
Kim has made the necessary adjustments thus far, most importantly shortening his swing a bit, which has enabled him to not only catch up with plus fastballs, but also drive them with authority. Friday night against the Yankees, Kim faced Dellin Betances, whose fastball can reach triple digits at times and sent a fastball back up the middle for an RBI. Considering there are only a handful of pitchers that can match the kind of velocity that Betances’ offers, that at-bat was as impressive as they come.
Digging into the numbers a bit deeper will show that Kim has acquitted himself very well to big league pitching. According to FanGraphs, Kim owns the highest wRC+ (161) in the Orioles lineup and he ranks 10th in all of baseball. Of course, we’re only 55 games into the season so the sample is still relatively small, but that’s certainly impressive nonetheless.
Credit manager Buck Showalter for putting Kim into spots to succeed. He’s had 78 plate appearances to date and the majority of those have come against right-handed pitchers. In fact, just two of Kim’s plate appearances have been against lefties this season. The important item here is not who’s he’s facing, but what he’s doing with those plate appearances. He owns an outstanding 86% contact rate and a very respectable 12.8% strikeout rate. Another important ingredient to his recent success has been his plate discipline. Kim has shown increased patience and a greater command of the strike zone resulting in a 10.3% walk rate, which is above the league average.
According to Statcast, Kim resides in the 88th percentile in batted-ball speed, which would explain his above average 35.6% Hard Contact rate. To put it simply – The harder you hit it the better the odds it turns into a hit and that’s precisely what’s been happening over the last 14 games. Kim’s produced a .375/.444/.550 slash line over that period and his .449 on-base percentage can be considered elite. There is some slight concern when it comes to his ground ball tendencies as he’s hitting into the turf at a 57.6% clip. That qualifies as way above league average and might eventually result into more frequent outs.
The important thing to remember is just how hard he’s hitting the ball. We noted the Statcast numbers earlier – which were impressive, but according to FanGraphs his average grounder speed leads the league at 96 MPH. That’s pretty ridiculous. If he can bring the GB% down to somewhere in the mid-30’s, we could be looking at one of the top 15 hitters in the league. But that’s a huge if. Even if he holds this same pattern, we’re still dealing with a very good hitter in an extremely potent lineup and there’s certainly nothing wrong with what we’re seeing now.
Needless to say, scouts around the league will ultimately have to shred their original scouting reports and start with a blank white page. Kim has demonstrated a greater understanding of major league pitching and what it takes to succeed against the best arms in the world night after night. The Orioles might have found their everyday left-fielder and that could pay huge dividends come October.