With about a month and a half remaining until the Orioles meet up in Sarasota for Spring Training, there are some noticeable holes on their roster. However, one spot where they should be stronger than a year ago is left field.
Last spring, both Hyun Soo Kim and Joey Rickard entered camp with endless question marks. Kim was a signing from the KBO and Rickard a Rule Five pick. Early on, Kim struggled while Rickard impressed. But as the season itself wore on, Kim’s value started to sky rocket, whereas Rickard wilted at the plate before a thumb injury ended his summer prematurely.
By all accounts, both have had a full, healthy offseason and now each have the better part of one major league season under their belt. This should give manager Buck Showalter enough confidence to commit to a full-time Kim/Rickard platoon.
Addition by subtraction
As a unit, Orioles left fielders slashed .251/.323/.365 with 12 home runs, 30 doubles and 45 RBI. Kim was given 83 games at that spot, Nolan Reimold had 45 games, Rickard got 30 and then Michael Bourn, Steve Pearce, Ryan Flaherty, Drew Stubbs, Julio Bourbon and Mark Trumbo split parts of 22 games between them.
Removing Reimold from that equation alone should vastly improve things. The 33-year-old struggled mightily, especially when sent to left field. While there, he slashed .200/.276/.315 and in the field Fangraphs gave him a -2.0 UZR at the position in 2016. We love ya, Nolan, but that just won’t cut it, man.
The perfect platoon
Kim is a left-handed hitter who throws with his right hand and hits the snot out of right-handed pitching. Rickard is a right-handed hitter who throws with his left hand and clobbers southpaws. Together they form....THE PLATOON-ERS!!!...or, uh, something.
Sounds like a Tuesday night show on NBC to me. Maybe USA network. Either way, start writing up the script now!
Stats don’t lie. Look at their splits. Against righties, Kim batted .321./393/.446 with six homers. He was 0-for-17 against lefties. On the other hand (punny!), Rickard went .313/.367/.494 against left-handers and was a measly .247/.296/.322 when facing a righty.
It’s not a fluke. Rickard has a history of dominating southpaws. He hit .372 against them in 2015 as a minor leaguer in Tampa’s system. And Kim, coming from the KBO, was pretty good against all pitchers, including righties who he had a .330 average against in the season before he made the jump to MLB.
Defense could be an issue
Of course, hitting is only part of the game. The Orioles have prided themselves on playing stellar defense in recent years, but the corner outfield spots greatly lacked that in 2016. Mark Trumbo was always an adventure in right. And left field was made up of a patchwork group that lacked a solid fielder among them.
Back when the O’s selected Rickard in the Rule Five draft, his glove was expected to be one of his big strengths. Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette even said as much in April.
“I think we’ve strengthened our outfield defense when we added Joey Rickard,” Duquette said. “He looks like he’s going to be very helpful on defense, and when you have good defense in your outfield, all of your pitchers are better.”
If advanced metrics are to be believed, this was far from the case. Rickard did not commit a single error and did show off his above average speed, but his defensive abilities seem to be lacking. Overall, he had a UZR of -9.9. In left field alone, he put up a -4.9; his worst position among the three outfield posts. Going by the eye test, Rickard tended to take long routes to fly balls and his arm was no better than mediocre at best.
Kim had even more difficulty, but that was to be expected. He was always thought of as a hitter first and foremost. Fangraphs gave him a UZR of -7.1 in left field. His arm was the biggest problem, costing the Birds about four runs.
The pros outweigh the cons
Admittedly, the combination of Kim and Rickard in left field is far from perfect. In addition to their defensive struggles, neither is a huge power threat and they will both be entering their second big league seasons. Are they due for a “sophomore slump” of sorts?
It’s possible. The league did look like it started to figure out Rickard after his first month of regular playing time. And Kim was a pleasant surprise, but he never got his head around how to hit lefties. Plus, his .345 batting average on balls in play feels unsustainable.
However, that street goes two ways. The pair has surely learned something from their time in the majors and should be stronger for it. Starting in mid-February, they can work with the O’s coaching staff on specific parts of their game that need to be improved and go about doing it.
If these two can combine to give the O’s somewhere between 2.0 and 3.0 WAR, that would be a huge plus. Sure, the power and glovework may need to come from elsewhere, but we know Baltimore can always produce dongs and some intense Spring Training could reinvigorate the left field leather.