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What to expect from Baltimore Orioles rookie Hyun Soo Kim

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This past winter the Baltimore Orioles signed Korean outfielder/first baseman Hyun Soo Kim to a two-year contract worth $7,000,000. Kim did not perform well in spring training (more on that in a second) but his contract contained a minor league refusal clause and Kim refused assignment to Triple-A Norfolk. The Orioles brought him north (the other choices were to release him and eat the contract, sell him back to a Korean team, or perhaps trade him to a club that would keep him in the majors). He's played in just one MLB game but went 2-for-3 in that contest.

So what do they have here?

From the 2016 Baseball Prospect Book:

Hyeon-Soo Kim, OF-1B, Baltimore Orioles
Bats: L Throws: R HT: 6-2 WT: 210 DOB: January 12, 1988


The Orioles signed outfielder-first baseman Hyeon Soo Kim out of Korea in December 2015. He has been a regular in the Korean Baseball Organization since he was 19 years old in 2007, hitting over .300 eight times in ten seasons while averaging 20 homers and 86 walks with just 72 strikeouts per 162 games. Korean baseball is offense-oriented but the reports on Kim are fairly enthusiastic. His physical tool set is generally average by major league standards and there’s some concern about his swing mechanics, but he has excellent strike zone judgment and his power should translate to at least decency in the Show. Various projection systems parse his Korean numbers to around .270/.330/.420 in major league terms, which seems reasonable and would make him a convenient role player. He’s not a pennant winner but Kim should be useful. Grade C+.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:

Kim hit .318/.406/.488 in his 10 seasons in Korea, including .326/.438/.541 with 28 homers, 101 walks, and just 63 strikeouts in 512 at-bats in 2015. As noted Korean baseball is friendly for hitters, however, scouts considered Kim's batting eye to be legitimate and he was expected to provide at least moderate power. The sabermetric projection systems all gave similar results (Steamer .275/.338/.421, ZiPS .271/.339/.429, PECOTA .274/.330/.410). Close observers of Korean baseball felt that Kim would be a slightly above-average major league hitter with OBP his best asset, just like the projection systems showed.

Kim got 45 at-bats in spring training, hitting just .178/.224/.178 with one walk and six strikeouts, obviously much less than expected. He got off to an 0-for-23 start. It was understandable that the Orioles would want to send him to the minors to get more at-bats, but it was also understandable that Kim wouldn't want to do this. Back in March, August Fagerstrom at Fangraphs looked at some of Kim's at-bats and noted that despite the poor numbers he was actually doing a decent job working counts and was making contact. The hits weren't falling and he was having some adjustment issues, but he did not look like a lost cause. Other sources weren't as enthusiastic, one source telling Dan Connolly at Baltimore Baseball that Kim was flawed on both offense and defense.

In the end the Orioles have kept Kim and his first game was a success. The Orioles don't exactly have Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, or Mickey Mantle in the outfield right now and perhaps Kim, with more playing time, can get enough momentum to earn a full-time job. Ultimately my thinking is that the projection systems are correct about Kim and that with sufficient adjustment time he'll emerge as a .270-..275 hitter with an OBP in the .330-.340 range and a SLG somewhat over .400.

That's not terrific but it is useful, though given the awkward circumstances he would need to start producing like that right away. He can't afford a slow start.