Free Hyun Soo Kim!

Hyun Soo Kim posted a .382 on-base percentage last season. He was one of just 20 players to post a .380 OBP or better (min. 300 plate appearances). As I’m sure you’re aware, that’s a pretty great mark. As I detailed a little in the positional power rankings for left field, Kim had a rocky start with the Orioles, who generally seemed not to like him very much. But by the end of the season, he was the club’s starting left fielder. He started only 78 of the team’s 162 games in left field, but he did start 40 of their final 64 there. And yet, despite ending the season as the team’s main left fielder and despite recorded a .382 OBP, he’s been buried on the bench to begin the 2017 season.

Let’s go back a second to that .382 OBP. That’s getting hard to pull off these days.

OBP is the heartbeat of an offense. So long as a club is avoiding outs, good things can happen. But it’s been a lot harder to find high-OBP figures over the past 10 years. Two years ago, for example, just eight players produced an OBP of .380 or better. It was the third-lowest total (after 1968 and 1963) since baseball integrated in 1947. Last year, only 20 batters reached that mark, which was tied for the 22nd-lowest total since Integration. The last few years, it has been very tough to find hitters who are really good at not making outs. And when teams find them, they cherish them. Here’s the list of the 20 players who pulled it off last season, and how much they’ve played this season. You’ll see one outlier.

2016 .380 OBP Hitters Comparison
2016 2017
Player G GS PA G GS PA
Paul Goldschmidt 158 158 705 17 17 74
Dexter Fowler 125 117 551 16 16 71
Kris Bryant 155 155 699 15 15 71
Mike Trout 159 157 681 17 17 70
Jose Altuve 161 160 717 16 16 70
Anthony Rizzo 155 151 676 15 15 70
Brandon Belt 156 149 655 15 15 69
Charlie Blackmon 143 135 641 16 16 69
Joey Votto 158 155 677 16 16 68
DJ LeMahieu 146 144 635 16 15 64
Freddie Freeman 158 158 693 15 15 64
Daniel Murphy 142 134 582 14 14 64
Miguel Cabrera 158 156 679 15 15 62
Ben Zobrist 147 142 631 14 12 58
Matt Carpenter 129 125 566 14 13 56
Robbie Grossman 99 89 389 13 12 51
Cameron Maybin 94 89 391 12 12 48
Josh Donaldson 155 153 700 9 8 35
Hyun Soo Kim 95 78 346 8 6 22
David Ortiz 151 140 626

Well, OK: two outliers, I guess. But David Ortiz voluntarily stopped playing games. Kim, on the other hand, hasn’t walked away from the sport. The Orioles simply aren’t playing him. His plate-appearance total is less than half of every other active player except Donaldson, whose total would be higher if he were healthy. They have a lot of other players to whom they’d rather give time, it seems. Joey Rickard was the favorite at this time last season, and remains on the team, despite a career .312 OBP and a negative career DRS and UZR. He’s a candidate to be the next Willie Bloomquist.

There’s Seth Smith, who’s been utilized in a fashion similarly to Kim. Smith posted a .378 OBP in 2009, when he helped the Rockies make the postseason, and a .367 OBP in 2014 with the Padres. But in the American League, he hasn’t been quite as proficient. Whether that’s because Smith is getting on in years or because the AL is the harder league is something we can debate, but what’s not debatable is that his OBP in the AL is .334, as opposed to .353 in the NL.

Craig Gentry is also on the roster, because he has the good fortune of being right-handed and good at defense. Or, at least he used to be. The last time he appeared in more than 30 games was 2014, so it’s not clear that he can be a plus defensive player over an extended period of time any longer. Still, he’s on the team.

Finally, there’s the new guy, Trey Mancini. The former eighth-round pick was ranked fifth and tabbed with a 45 FV by Eric in his Orioles prospect list this year. So far this season, he’s hit six fly balls and four of them have been home runs, which gives him a totally sustainable 66.7% HR/FB. Sustainable or not, his hot start has made him the flavor of the month: the Orioles are finding playing time for him wherever they can. He’s made appearances at first base, designated hitter, left field and right field.

Where this has left Kim is mostly on the bench. The Orioles have played 14 games now, and he’s started just six of them. He started three of the first four games, and then just three of the next 10. What’s most amusing about that is that, in his third start — in the season’s fourth game on April 8 — he rapped out three hits, including the biggest hit of the game. He singled to right off of Dellin Betances in the bottom of the seventh to give the Orioles a 5-4 lead that they would preserve for the win. Then he didn’t start in any of the next four games.

Of course, Baltimore faced left-handed pitchers in three of those four games. Six of the eight games in which Kim hasn’t appeared as a starter were against left-handers. The Orioles are seemingly convinced that Kim is incapable of playing against left-handed pitching. This strikes me as odd. In his nine full seasons with the Doosan Bears in the Korean Baseball Organization, Kim played in 96.7% of his team’s regular season games — 1,130 out of a possible 1,168 games. In those nine seasons, he tallied a .406 OBP. Now, I don’t claim to be a KBO expert, but this seems like a promising indication of Kim’s ability to handle the duties of a full-time role.

This isn’t just hearsay. While there doesn’t seem to be a publicly available record of Kim’s career splits in the KBO, the website Statiz (graciously translated for me by Hardball Times writer Sung-Min Kim) has at least tracked such splits since 2014. The numbers there indicate that, in 2014 and 2015, Kim hit .353/.438/.503 in 372 plate appearances against left-handed pitching. That’s very, very good!!! Like, good enough that it should have bought him more than 23 measly PA against lefties here stateside last season.

Nevertheless, the Orioles seem determined not play him against left-handed starters. This significantly reduces his utility to their team given all the current AL East southpaw starting pitchers — a list that includes J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano on Toronto; Drew Pomeranz, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Chris Sale in Boston; Jordan Montgomery and CC Sabathia in New York; and Blake Snell in Tampa Bay. That’s nine left-handed starting pitchers in their own division — eight, if you don’t think Price will pitch this season. Baltimore has already faced Happ twice, and they sat Kim both times. It doesn’t seem likely that they’ll ever let him prove he can hit lefties.

This might be fine, if they were giving him all the playing time versus righties. But they’re not! He sat against Bronson Arroyo and Steven Wright, and he’s been replaced for defense in five of the six games he’s started. That’s because the Orioles are also convinced that he’s such a horrifying defensive liability that he can’t be trusted in the field. Of course, they could play Mark Trumbo in left and let Kim DH — Trumbo had better defensive metrics than Kim in more outfield innings last season — but they’re not doing that, either. The result is that a player who was in the top 20 in OBP last season has only played one complete game this season.

So, why keep Kim on the roster? Left fielders who can post such high OBPs are in short supply these days. And it’s not as if Kim’s performance was branded a fluke by projection systems. Our depth charts had him at .361 before the season, and that hasn’t changed much with his slow start. (Perhaps he’s pressing since he can’t even get all of the starts against right-handed pitching?) His rest-of-season depth charts OBP is .358. That has value. Value that perhaps the Orioles could turn into the fifth starter they so desperately need. Or perhaps another solid reliever, if it turns out that Zach Britton is going to miss an extended period of time.

The bottom line is this: Hyun Soo Kim has done nothing to tarnish his reputation as a very good hitter. Not in Korea, not in the United States. But the Orioles don’t trust him, and have only allowed him to tally 22 PA over the team’s first 14 games. Anyone would be more valuable to the Orioles than a player only trusted to tally 22 PA over 14 games — a figure that’s less than half of what the team’s regular starters have accumulated thus far. If Baltimore is not going to play him, then it’s time to use him as a trade chip, and get a player they will use. It’s time to free Hyun Soo Kim!

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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7 years ago

“I’ll take it!”

“Hello, Giants? I have something you may want…”

7 years ago
Reply to  tb3nn3tt

I was thinking this (or something like it) had to happen, until Bumgarner wrecked his shoulder. Don’t know it makes as much sense to pay in-season prices for a left fielder now, though.