Having had nearly three full months to digest its conclusion, the astounding nature of Hyun Soo Kim’s first year with the Orioles remains a Festivus miracle. From a hitless spring and the Orioles fumbling for his receipt, fans aired their grievances to the ire of Opening Day boos. Becoming not only a fan favorite but one of the roster’s most trusted contributors by season’s end, Kim enters his encore season with a surefire guarantee to see the field more often than not.
Kim’s feats of strength against right-handed pitching were evident a season ago, where his .321/.393/.446 and 129 wRC+ in 323 plate appearances shattered even the most optimistic expectations. Second to only Chris Davis in walk rate (10.1%) while leading the team in on-base and swing efficiency (14.7 K%), Kim shined as a rare contact-first complement to the Orioles slugging persona.
Yet, even as Kim mashed from May to October, his playing time remained specialized. With over 320 plate appearances against righties added to his resume, Kim saw only 23 plate appearances versus those of the same arm side. Hitless in 18 official at-bats (four walks, one HBP), Kim became a strict righty-only option as 2016 drew to a close.
Contrary to his word, Dan Duquette probably has enough viable outfielders heading into March, especially given Mark Trumbo’s recent re-acquisition. As much as Trumbo’s defense would be better suited as a DH in 2017, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t see a respectable amount of playing time in right field with Seth Smith.
Easy as it is to forget Joey Rickard exists, his .861 OPS and 131 wRC+ against lefties isn’t. With Adam Jones cemented in center field, the Orioles are well positioned to assort their corner outfield positions with a variety of offensive skill-sets, a substance lacking to a team nearly identical to last year’s 89-win club.
And as dreamy as that sounds, such a proposition still leaves Trumbo departing from his desired DH spot for occasional outfield duty.
Alex Conway wrote yesterday in regards to Trumbo’s expected boost against lefties, a facet of his game that saw an unprecedented downturn last season. With Smith as a likely righty only matchup and and Rickard’s limited but substantial showing against lefties, a right field platoon becomes the only available avenue to keep Trumbo’s glove stashed away, obtainable only by destroying his own seven horcruxes.
If such a proposition is reality, would Kim be able to handle the duties of an everyday left field?
Well, 23 plate appearances versus lefties doesn’t tell us much, but what they do reveal is something we already know; Kim is going to keep the same approach.
One of things Kim does better than the rest of his compadres is emphasize and implement an abundance of contact. Rarely over-swinging, Kim’s advantageous bat-to-ball skills and reliably simple swing allow him to cover the entirety of the plate. As his zone profiles and the aforementioned spray chart shows, Kim tends to hit the baseball where its pitched, even against lefties. That’s a good thing.
What’s not good is the BABIP dragon flaming Kim as unmercifully as the slave masters of Astapor. Of the 18 opportunities put into play, Kim failed to guide one baseball against lefties into open real estate. While I’m a firm believer BABIP unravels into more conspiracy theories than actual truths, Kim was certainly, as the experts say, unlucky.
Of the six ground balls against lefties recorded by Statcast, Kim averaged an exit velocity of 92.7 MPH, higher than his total batted ball average of 91.6 MPH. Among all hitters with at least 190 recordable events, Kim’s 91.7 MPH accumulated ground ball exit velocity was 14th-best in the entire league. Kim hit the baseball with the same authority on the ground against lefties as he did against righties, though his .328 BABIP against righties was that much more fortuitous.
For example, after toughing out a 2-2 count on a night David Price’s FIP finally predicated its outlying, Kim smokes a 103.7 MPH line drive ground ball right at Dustin Pedroia. If the baseball is a few feet to Pedroia’s right or left, who knows the lessening extent of this current conversation, but here we are.
As well, Kim was the victim of another 103.7 MPH, 102.4 MPH and a 100.0 MPH ground ball of the same variety all being played for outs. So, while we can certainly put Kim’s lefty failures under a scope, the results aren’t a detriment to the process.
Excluding the ground balls, Kim’s fondness for the left field line is nothing more than a footnote.
Nothing about Kim’s approach at the plate changes, even on a tough 2-2 J.P. Howell curveball. Recognizing and reacting, Kim does everything right in relation to the count and pitch, despite hitting a 323-foot fly ball out. Again, it isn’t a matter of using the result as a gauge, but what came before.
Though Howell gets away with a location mistake, Kim isn’t caught leaning out over the plate, rather sitting back and exploding through the baseball. Over the course of a more hearty sample size, such an approach eventually triumphs.
As we creep further into Duquette’s favorite time of year, it’s a tough sell to say that he’s done adding to and subtracting from the current Orioles roster. Rickard may end up timesharing left field with Kim as well as right field like Duquette said he would, even before Trumbo was brought back.
Smith may end up roving between the DH spot and right field along with Trumbo, allowing Showalter to dissect daily matchups. Hell, we haven’t even made it to the inevitable “Trey Mancini Outfield Experiment” portion of the offseason quite yet.
Even so, if the Orioles wanted to, or even needed him to, Kim has shown enough to calm a transition into taking on a larger role. If anything, he’s earned it.