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Hyun Soo Kim’s success so far is not a fluke

Kim continues to hit well, helping the Orioles when they need it the most.

Three months ago I argued Hyun-Soo Kim was handling major league pitching well despite not playing much. He had such a weird path onto the major-league roster, and he was handled so oddly at the start of the season, that I wanted to check on him again.

On May 10th Kim was playing irregularly. When he did play, he usually batted towards the bottom of the order. Since then Buck Showalter has not only played Kim more, he's batted Kim higher in the lineup:

Save for a trip to the DL, Kim would’ve played 25 or more games in July.

Thanks for listening, Buck. I will generously ask for only 5% of Kim’s salary as consulting fee.

Kim has rewarded Buck's trust. Through Sunday's game he's slashing .329/.409/.441, good for a 134 wRC+. He's kept his good batting eye, striking out only 12.4% of the time while walking 10.4% of the time. That 2 percentage point difference puts him in the 96th percentile among hitters with at least 180 PA, close to Josh Reddick, Joe Mauer, Jose Ramirez, and Albert Pujols.

Sure, Kim's BABIP is .371. That's high and may regress a bit before the year is out. But even if it does, his plate discipline means he’ll still reach base. And he’ll still hit the ball hard — his exit velocity averages 92.1 MPH, ranking in the 89th percentile of 435 players with at least 30 batted balls.

Kim's ISO of .112 is far better than the .056 mark when I last wrote about him. In the intervening three months Kim has clocked nine more doubles and recorded his first three major-league home runs. That ISO won't win any MVP awards, but it's passable.

The reason it's not higher is that Kim is a ground-ball machine. His rate of 55.6% puts him in the 94th percentile this year. Ah, but the GB% rating on FanGraphs is based on subjective interpretation. As Jeff Sullivan explained in June, Statcast's launch angle shows Kim's subjective grounders are objectively much closer to line drives. Hence the high-BABIP, low-power results: Kim is hitting the ball hard into the ground, but not directly into the ground. This approach has led to success.

Speaking of approach, pitchers have adjusted theirs. They’re feeding Kim more and more offspeed pitches:

They’ve sensed that he’s whiffed on 19.4% of change-ups he's swung at, his highest ratio of any pitch save the knuckleball. They’ve also sensed he's batted .053 with an ISO of .000 on change-ups this year.

Perhaps pitchers haven’t noticed, but perhaps their front-office nerds have, that Kim’s heatmap shows he can handle only hanging change-ups, not the well-placed ones:

Look for more and more pitchers to exploit this weakness as the season continues.

Kim’s platoon-heavy splits drag his value down. His wRC+ in 14 plate appearances against lefties is -21. Thankfully, the Orioles recently re-acquired Steve Pearce. Pearce’s 133 wRC+ vs. lefties complements Kim’s 146 wRC+ vs. righties. Put them together and you have Voltron.

Kim’s defense is another downside. DRS says he’s seven runs worse than average; UZR says two runs worse. But his offense has more than compensated, resulting in 1.1 fWAR in 193 plate appearances. And while DRS and UZR may dislike what Kim’s done, they don’t indicate who he is. He’s only 367 innings into his defensive career. DRS and UZR take much longer to show true talent.

Consider that Kim is making $2.8 million this year. That’s nothing for a ballplayer, particularly not for one who’s contributed about $9 million in value. Kim would have to crater, and crater hard, to not be worth his contract. His plate discipline and hard contact indicate a prolonged slump is unlikely.

Now also consider the Orioles’ specific needs this year. They’re in a battle for the AL East. Toronto and Boston could easily win the division. So Kim’s 1.1 fWAR is far more meaningful to the Orioles than it would be to, say, the Cubs or the Reds. Every win counts; every run scored or saved has a large impact on the team’s postseason chances.

Kim isn’t a superstar, nor will he fluke his way into being one. But for the cost of $2.8 million and a month of Spring Training anxiety, not to mention any lessons the team chef needed in order to make bibimbap, the Orioles are getting a solid contributor at a time when they need it most.