Even if the 2016 Orioles season ends in disappointment, there have been plenty of bright spots along the way. Whether it’s Chris Tillman’s return to form as an above-average starter, Dylan Bundy finally emerging as a Major League pitcher, or J.J. Hardy showing he’s still got something left in the tank, there are plenty of reasons to believe the 2017 O’s can make another run at the playoffs.
Here’s another one: Hyun Soo Kim can hit. After a horrible spring training and a start to the season where he barely saw the field, Kim has performed at the plate better than anyone would’ve predicted back in March or April.
Be honest: on Opening Day, you didn’t think Kim would have a good year. I certainly didn’t think Kim would have a good year. It was clear that the only reason he was on the 25-man roster was a clause in his contract that kept him there. It was also clear that Buck Showalter had no intentions of playing him with any sort of regularity.
Even when Kim went 6-for-13 in his first five games (which, by the way, spanned almost an entire month), no one was buying it. None of those hits were hard-hit balls, and at least half of them didn’t even leave the infield.
But Kim just kept hitting. As the honeymoon period ended with Joey Rickard, Kim found more consistent playing time and made the most of it. He starting hitting the ball harder, and what originally looked like luck began to look like a hitter who knows what he’s doing.
Today, Kim is hitting .315/.392/.425 in 286 plate appearances, which is good for a wRC+ of 123, meaning he’s been 23% more productive than a league-average hitter. How has he done it? Primarily, pitch selection and an ability to get the bat on the ball.
So far this year, Kim has swung at 22.3% of pitches outside of the strike zone. Out of the 266 players with at least 250 plate appearances, that ranks as the 18th lowest.
In contrast, Adam Jones has swung at almost exactly double that amount, 44.5% of pitches outside of the strike zone.
Meanwhile, Kim’s contact percentage on pitches outside of the zone is 76.8%. That’s the 27th highest out of those same 266 players. This is Kim in a nutshell: he doesn’t swing at many balls, but when he does, he hits them.
It’s obvious that this is a good thing. Swinging at balls is bad, and Kim doesn’t do it often. When he does, he’s swinging at balls that tend to be closer to the strike zone and easier to hit. You don’t see Kim chasing many sliders in the other batter’s box.
Compare this to someone like Javier Baez of the Cubs. He swings at 43.8% of balls out of the zone, and makes contact with 63.6% of them. That means he swings and misses at one in every six “bad” pitches thrown his way. For Kim, it’s one in twenty. That’s a huge difference.
Going back to that sample of 266 players, let’s see how many players have both an O-Swing% less than 24%, and an O-Contact% higher than 75%. There are six. Kim, Joe Mauer, Joe Panik, Ben Zobrist, Brett Gardner, and Anthony Rendon.
Panik and Gardner aren’t having great years, but they’ve been good hitters in very recent history. Mauer, Zobrist, and Rendon have all been solidly above average this season.
All five of those players have shown an ability to hit at an All-Star level in the past few seasons. Even with a couple of them having down years, it’s clear that there are no bad hitters in this group. To have numbers like this, you have to be a skilled batter.
We’ve established that Kim can hit. Now, I would be remiss in not acknowledging Kim’s glove. Defense is a big part of a player’s value, and Kim has been nothing short of horrible on defense.
By Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Kim has been worth -13 runs, which is 6th worst of all MLB outfielders. DRS is a counting stat, and Kim has played less innings than any of the five guys above him.
By UZR/150, which is a rate stat that accounts for playing time, he’s at -23.7. That’s the worst in the game for outfielders who have played at least 400 innings. This is a problem; there’s no doubt about that.
Fortunately, Kim has hit well enough that he’s still had a net positive value to the Orioles. Fangraphs has him at 0.7 WAR in about a half-season’s worth of playing time. Even in 250 at-bats, he’s earned his $3.5 million salary.
Next season he’ll have another year of MLB coaching under his belt, so hopefully he can at least upgrade from horrendous to just plain bad in the field.
Even if he doesn’t, there’s a decent chance that both Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez will be gone. Kim could see significant time at DH, which would limit the damage he could do in the outfield.
Regardless of how the offseason shakes out, it’s clear that Hyun Soo Kim belongs here. The Orioles might still make the playoffs in few weeks, but even if they don’t there are plenty of reasons for optimism going forward. Without a doubt, Kim’s successful debut season is one of them.