Hyun-soo Kim Might Look Familiar to Orioles

Wednesday, the Angels quietly picked up Daniel Nava. They did so quietly because there would be no way to do so loudly, and after it was announced, some people started talking seriously about a potential platoon between Nava and Craig Gentry. I don’t know if that’ll happen — I don’t think that’s going to happen — but the mere possibility suggests the Angels aren’t thrilled with the options. It’s a curious thing to consider at the same time as the Orioles agreeing to sign Hyun-soo Kim for two years and $7 million. Kim will be coming from the KBO, so there are the usual questions, but he turns just 28 in a month, and this is middle-reliever money.

For reference, Chad Qualls signed for two years and $6 million. Oliver Perez signed for two years and $7 million. Jonathan Broxton signed for two years and $7.5 million and a no-trade clause. Perfectly useful relievers, all of them, but Kim is lined up to be a starting outfielder, and he’s right around peak age. Without even knowing anything about Kim, the potential value is obvious.

When I first started analyzing Kim, I thought about Nori Aoki. Some people would call that a lazy comp, but I do think it’s within reason. Also, I’ve just had Aoki on my mind lately, so I’m biased. As I’ve thought about this more, though, I’ve arrived at something else. What could Kim turn into in Baltimore? A very familiar-looking player. The Orioles know this skillset.

For some background, Kim is coming off his age-27 season, and it might’ve been his best season. He bats left-handed, and he’s used to playing both left field and first base. For the Orioles, he’ll be looked at as a left fielder, with a bit of versatility. From what I’ve read, and from what I’ve been told, Kim doesn’t profile as an outstanding defender. He should be something more like average, give or take a few runs. What’s most interesting is the bat — or, perhaps, the approach. Here are Kim’s last three seasons, sort of. This is a plot of walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power, only instead of raw statistics, I’m showing the ratio of Kim’s numbers to the league-average numbers.

kim-kbo-stats

Kim has run good walk rates, and last year he spiked. He’s also run excellent strikeout rates, coming in around half the league average the last two years. And it’s not just empty discipline — Kim has hit for some pretty good power, last year going deep 28 times. So he showed power while walking 38 times more than he struck out. He can put the bat on the ball, but he’s also reluctant to chase, and he’ll provide his share of souvenirs.

In this age of increasing strikeouts, teams have thought more about buying contact. Kim looks like he should hit for contact. There’s just the one player, but it’s worth noting that Jung-ho Kang didn’t strike out more often as a rookie than he did in the KBO. He walked less, absolutely. And the power was present, but diminished. No one expects Kim to repeat all his numbers. It’s just about evaluating the skillset.

I’ve got a player in mind. He’s a left-handed-hitting corner outfielder, and the last seven years, he’s walked just a bit more than the league average. He’s also struck out a third less than average, while running an ISO 18% below the average. He’s profiled as a mediocre defender. He doesn’t play in Baltimore anymore, but he did for a while, and his name is Nick Markakis.

Markakis, over the seven years, has averaged a win and a half per 600 plate appearances. That’s definitely not outstanding. But Kim could reach this level, and that level is worth more than $3.5 million a season. Plus, there’s a hint of upside — maybe Kim hits for league-average power. Maybe he plays as a league-average defender. He’s young, he’s durable, and he’s going to play in a hitter-friendly environment. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to suggest that Kim could be a perfectly average all-around player, and as unexciting as that might sound, value is value. The Orioles have plenty of holes, and they need to be efficient if they want to address them all. A proven major-league version of Kim might’ve required $20 – 25 million over the same amount of time. Perhaps even more.

The contract is light because of the skepticism. The skepticism is warranted, because mediocre hitters here have been great hitters there, and only one hitter there has come and been good here. Still, this feels like teams are too cautious. At the end of the day, this is an easy contract to eat if Kim doesn’t work out. It’s like dismissing a utility player. You have to think the probability is that Kim is worth more than $7 million, which makes this a good get for Baltimore, even if he’s not an impact player.

As an aside, this is going to be different. The question about Kang was about how the power would translate. The question about Byung-ho Park is about how the power will translate. The question about Kim is about how the discipline will translate. The power is questioned, too, but if Kim makes enough contact, it’ll be hard for this to go too wrong.

While the money is light, I do think Kim found himself a decent deal. Kim was a free agent, while Kang and Park were posted. Because of the posting process, Kang and Park wound up with just about zero leverage, so they signed cheap four-year deals with fifth-year club options. Kim, it seems, is signing for a flat two years, assuming he passes the physical, so then that sets him up to be a free agent again going into his age-30 year. If he manages to prove himself over the next 1,000 plate appearances, he’ll sign for a certain eight figures. There won’t be any questions anymore. So he’s feeling the major-league skepticism, but he’s not locked in for too long for middle-reliever money. It’s always better to be a free agent.

The Orioles aren’t done, but it looks like they’ve plugged one hole. And though Kim is unlikely to be spectacular, he seems likely to be a value, so this seems likely to look good for the Orioles in the end. It should help keep them on the fringes of contention, which might be the best they can hope for. As for how the Orioles got this done, I have a little theory that teams don’t yet want to commit themselves to low-upside players. Ceilings are always enchanting, and there’s big talent out there on the market, and it’s still the middle of December. So teams could believe, if they miss out on the upside, there will still be half-decent players available later as backup plans. It just doesn’t always actually work out that way. Plus, a value now is a value any time. Plus, Kim could surprise. Peak age, after all. One of the best outfielders in South Korea. It hasn’t been proven those hitters don’t work here.

We hoped you liked reading Hyun-soo Kim Might Look Familiar to Orioles by Jeff Sullivan!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

newest oldest most voted
Scott
Guest
Scott

While I know Shin-Soo Choo never played in the KBO he was signed out of South Korea as an amateur and went on to be a star in MLB. Can we add him as a data point in favor of position players coming from Korea?

Also an interesting side note: He’s childhood best friends with Dae-ho Lee the FA Korean 1B that may come over from NPB this offseason.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

I think the real question with Korean hitters is whether statistical success in the KBO is indicative of future success in the MLB. Choo never played in the KBO, so even if he is a data point showing that Korean hitters can be successful, his experience doesn’t say anything about what KBO statistics can tell us.

grumbleshoes
Guest
grumbleshoes

What would have happened if Choo played the KBO, though? Would he have put up unprecedented superstar numbers? Or would he have put up more typical star-level numbers, making his bona fide talents difficult to distinguish from that of mediocre former major leaguers?

Would he have played down to the level of the KBO and not fully develop his skills? Whatever the answer, I think the possibility of acquiring a player as good as Choo ought to be folded into the analysis in some manner. It happened once. Perhaps it’s repeatable.

jdbolick
Member

Ugh, no. The question is not whether Koreans can be good baseball players, as the answer is definitively yes and pretty racist to even ask. As Ryan said, the question is how well KBO performance translates to major league success. Choo is completely irrelevant to that question.

grumbleshoes
Guest
grumbleshoes

I’m very sorry you’ve chosen to take the discussion in that direction. Being opposed to critical thought as a matter of principle when it comes to player development in particular regions is definitely one way to approach the issue. It’s not my preferred one.

But if we take the approach of trying in good faith to have an adults table conversation, one thing that often happens if that the scope of analysis adjusts over the course of the conversation.

There’s a legitimate question about how different baseball institutions affect player development. It’s a question we already field on a regular basis when it comes to high school and college programs all across the US (player X came from the same high school as player Y, they have a good system there!). It’s a question about taking amateurs vs taking players in organized leagues, and what happens to the talent of the same player depending what path they take.

Lastly, something very similar to Godwin’s rule applies here. Being so cavalier as to throw around erroneous, cheap shot accusations of racism is going to diminish the seriousness of that charge and hurt our ability to fight that stuff when it actually occurs. THAT, not open conversation about international player development, is the kind of thing we ought to dispense with.