Hyun Soo Kim Is Getting Comfortable

Imagine being Hyun Soo Kim. You’re signed by the Baltimore Orioles to a deal that’s on the small side by American standards, the kind of deal that comes without fanfare or breathless video crews. You’re optimistic about your chances of succeeding in the majors. You spend your spring training calmly adjusting to a new league and country — and then, suddenly, you’re in the middle of a maelstrom when you opt to refuse a minor-league assignment, a right you negotiated into your contract for a reason.

All that might be firmly in the rear-view mirror by now — “I consider spring training in the past” said the Orioles outfielder before a game against the Athletics — but that sort of backstory would make any of us a little uncomfortable. The good news is that the outfielder finally made all of those adjustments, on his own time, and is now getting comfortable in this new situation.

The problem with spring training wasn’t necessarily an issue with cultural translation. Yes, spring training is longer in Korea and, yes, Kim spent his time working on his craft. That time “was just to have my at-bats in a progressive order,” Kim said, “and get used to the balls the pitchers throw. It was more like to get out there and get in the rhythm.”

But spring training is just as much a time for evaluation as it is for preparation. Same in Korea as here. The disconnect between the Orioles and Kim came from their different views on his status. “Because there are many players [in Korea] that have proven themselves already, and they were already evaluated, spring doesn’t mean much to them,” Kim said. “They can do what they need to do. The team has already seen their Double-A stats, their Triple-A stats, they know what that player is.”

And so Kim, long established in Korea, may have fallen into his regular spring-training mode, getting ready for day one on his own pace. “For me, I just came to the states and not many people had actually seen me much. So they treated it as evaluation rather than an adjustment period,” the outfielder told me. Imagine taking swings in what you consider some sort of advanced batting practice while the team thinks you’re trying to win games. That might create conflict.

In any case, now the team has seen what Kim can do when he’s got his game face on. Partially because of the things he learned in the spring, as he was trying to time pitchers and judge the new strike zone. Maybe because of how much he had to learn, or maybe because of how little he played early on, some of that adjustment has bled into the season.

The strike zone here is different. Though the zone has been getting lower here, Kim didn’t feel like he was seeing more low strikes in America. “Maybe because everyone here is tall,” joked the Oriole. “In Korea, the players are shorter, so the strike zone is generally low.”

What is different here is the inside pitch. Maybe because the lefty strike zone is shifted to the outside part of the plate in America, Kim felt that umpires didn’t call strikes on the inside part of the plate. If you split his 57 games in half, you can tell that Kim was swinging at some pitches on the inside early on, and moved on once he saw that umpires weren’t calling those pitches strikes.

KimEarlyvLate

Most players who come over from Korea or Japan report that there are fewer fastballs in that game. Kim agreed — “fastballs, definitely more fastballs. And moving. Hard, moving fastballs” he said with a laugh — but there was an added wrinkle that made the swing/don’t swing decision for Kim more difficult here.

“Pitchers here are aggressive compared to Asian pitchers,” Kim said. “Pitchers here don’t like to waste pitches. Over there, they throw a lot of breaking balls and try to get hitters to chase. Here they go right at you.” The way that this played out might most easily be seen in his overall swing rates, shown below. Kim had to swing a little bit more early in the season as he found pitchers were being aggressive with him.

KimRolling

Now he’s calmed down a bit. He’s found a happy medium, and he’s now ready for that “late sinking movement away” on the fastballs that make them tougher to deal with here. This past month has seen him swing at fewer fastballs than any month previously.

In the field, Kim is also finding his footing. His defensive numbers so far are bad, but subjective reports before his arrival in the US were more positive. Kim admitted that “batted balls are coming much harder, they feel like they are coming in faster,” so he’s had to work on getting better first steps. Maybe better defense is coming.

Off the field, there’s still a language barrier. And a cultural one. “Home game days are about the same, there are not many differences,” said Kim of Korea versus America. “But when we are away, in Korea they all have to move together in a collective way. The whole team eats together and moves together. But here, it’s more of an individual thing. You do whatever you like.”

Kim has responded by apparently taking teammates to Korean barbecue when they are on the road. He’s slowly building bridges with those around him, and they look forward to learning from him. Mark Trumbo has his strengths, but he said he looks forward to slowly getting to know more about hitting from the patient, disciplined Kim.

More time should continue to help, but as much as Kim has established himself, there are still questions about his future. How much power will he show? How much will his defense improve? Who knows. As Kim himself says, “It’s really hard to predict anything. The game of baseball is very hard.”





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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pedeysRSox
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pedeysRSox

What is with his defensive rating being so low?

CamdenWarehouse
Member
Member
CamdenWarehouse

Strictly from observation – he looks a bit sluggish in getting after the ball. Not just slow in running, but in reaction time and instinct.

However, I have to say that this was far more noticeable early in the season.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

A purely baseless hypothesis is that because defensive statistics are not widely used outside of the US, players from other leagues rely on instructions based on conventional wisdom. That may not fare so well under analytical scrutiny, unless you have superior instincts and talents, like a certain Miami Marlins outfielder.