You know how people say you probably shouldn't pay attention to Spring Training? Well, that's probably because you shouldn't pay attention to Spring Training.
Out of the frying pan and into our hearts, Joey Rickard amassed a Bill and Ted "whoa" kind of spring slash in 63 at-bats, hitting .397/.472/.571, including six doubles and a home run. Spraying the baseball to all fields, surprising power, plus-speed and more than serviceable defense sprung Rickard from his status as a fringy Rule-5 pick to being penciled into left field in Buck Showalter's opening day lineup. Then there's Hyun-Soo Kim.
Kim, whose initial arrival into Sarasota begged his assurance as an Orioles regular, looked lost at the plate, overpowered by the big league fastball, and when he did produce, all eight of his hits in 45 at-bats were singles. While his adjustment to the United States was, and still is, a unique inner-struggle, the simple fact remained: the Orioles needed an immediate contributor both at the plate and in the field, and Rickard's readiness was the surprisingly obvious choice.
While that was March, we now reign in May, where both rookies have taken their respective paths in stride. Rickard's first 14 games were a continuance of his spring, hitting .343 with an .846 OPS, equating to impressive production as a predominant leadoff hitter. Though, the honeymoon may be coming to a close.
Since his three-hit game on April 21st, the Rickard we knew is slowly becoming the Joey to match his outer shell. In the 12 games preceding, Rickard has managed a .141 batting average to accompany a (look away while you still can) .415 OPS. Over the past two weeks, I've seen a hitter unable to turn around a fastball and thinking rather than reacting, and the evidence shows it to be true.
Camden Chat comrade Mr. Bill Duck delved into the depths of Rickard's recent misfortunes at greater length, but the basis of his thesis revolved around Rickard seeing more off-speed pitches. Rickard had no issues hitting the fastball leading up to April 21st, seeing a variety of fastballs (four-seam, cutter and sinker) 66% of the time, batting .478 with a .348 ISO. He was hitting the fastball and hitting it well, though pitchers adjusted. Over the past two weeks, Rickard has seen that number fall to 50%, with a massive hike in opponent slider usage.
A jump in the frequency of changing speeds has negated the "pokability" of Rickard's less than desirable inside-out swing. Rickard's natural bat path flows out over the plate, and from what I've seen, he has a hard time creating space with his hands on the inner-half of the plate. Breaking balls away and fastballs on his hip will create weak contact and frustrating at-bats. As long as the book remains open on how to get Rickard out, don't expect pitchers to skip a chapter.
Perhaps it's nothing more than a slump or coming of age, but I've made camp with those who have maintained a weariness in believing Joey Freakin' Rickard could indeed stick as an everyday player. A punchy swing, lack of walkability and surprisingly disappointing defense isn't a strong recipe to keep the cult from drinking the Kool-Aid. Though, how much can an organization realistically expect from a player who, at this time last year, was playing at High-A Charlotte?
Amazingly enough, where we found Kim throughout the spring is where we find Rickard. And ya know, after talks of terminating his contract and refusal to take the Norfolk shuttle, Kim wanted to bet on himself. So far, he's proved us he was right.
The rise in average fastball velocity seemed to brush Kim away from comfort, though he's done well to adapt.
The lovable Doosan Bear was called upon in the top of the 9th, down three runs with two outs against a crafty closer in Shawn Tolleson. Kim, down 1-2, took a pair of well-located pitches on both sides of the plate, setting up a 3-2 count. Tolleson, given the situation, throws a fairly well-located 93 MPH fastball that he probably thought would induce a game-ending ground ball, popup, or any sort of out. While both men likely knew what the other was thinking, it doesn't take away that Kim wraps a 104.7 MPH single into right field. Down and somewhat in, it isn't too often you see a pitch in such a location hit with authority between the first and second basemen.
In his third start of the year, Kim steps up with runners on first and second with two outs. Wasting no time, Kim finds a fastball he likes, flaring an RBI single in front of Lorenzo Cain.
Harping on Rickard for his inside-out approach is not the same as Kim. With Rickard, the bat head lags through the zone, meaning he naturally, like Colorado's DJ LeMahieu, forces the ball to right side. Kim's swing is much more balanced, and though he is just behind on a first pitch fastball, his hand-eye coordination finds the inside of the baseball. Ever encouraging it is to see a hitter maneuver his hands in such a manner.
Kim's crowning achievement in his 17 plate appearances took place this most recent Saturday against one of baseball's hottest pitchers, Mat Latos. Having worked a 2-0 count, Kim gets a fastball over the middle of the plate and does what you're supposed to do with it. Hit it hard.
Jim Palmer mentioned in the broadcast that Jose Abreu probably should have made this play, and initially he's probably right. Abreu is positioned perfectly to make the play, tag first and throw the baseball around the diamond with one out in the 3rd inning. Well, human beings are not designed to snag 106.4 MPH line drives with a short hop to boot. Kim's first career extra-base hit is a textbook example of working into a hitter's count and punishing the pitcher for having the audacity to do so.
The one redeeming quality in all three clips is Kim's ability to meet the baseball to the barrel of the bat. When the sweet spot of the bat connects with the baseball, the baseball will naturally exit the plate with ferocity, as Kim has shown. His 95.0 MPH average exit velocity slots just under Mark Trumbo's 95.8 MPH mark, a testament to both men's inherited knack of barreling up baseballs.
For Kim, his numbers can only be quantified in small amounts because the Orioles remain cautious in his usage. Kim has yet to face a lefty and he's only appeared in back-to-back games once, but to what end does Showalter expand his role?
I know Nolan Reimold holds the city of Baltimore in his hands, but his current status as an every-other-day kind of player suits him perfectly. Rickard is what he is. A singles hitter with speed that should be used as David Lough was. Kim can hit. He should be allowed to hit.
Rickard will likely be given a longer than necessary leash to see if his kinks are more temporary than permanent, but if he does give in to the latter, Kim has made the most of his opportunities just as Rickard did this spring. With Rickard, the Orioles made the move they thought was necessary. At the time it was justified, but that doesn't mean it was the right one.
Maybe the best move was the one they planned all along.