The Upside of Hyun Soo Kim’s Downside

Remember when it was the end of spring training, and the Orioles were exploring ways to not have Hyun Soo Kim be on the roster? My computer tells me it’s June 6, and I have reason to believe my computer, and if you set a low enough minimum, Kim owns the highest wRC+ in Baltimore’s lineup. He ranks 10th in all of baseball, and though that 10th sandwiches him between Tyler Naquin and Steve Pearce — it’s early — it’s not hard to draw parallels between 2016 Kim and 2015 Jung Ho Kang. Kim presumably isn’t this good, but he’s talented, and now he’s showing that he can hold his own against big-league competition. It didn’t look like that in March, but March has lied to us before.

Let’s dig into Kim just a little bit. He’s batted 78 times, and nearly every single one of those plate appearances has come against a righty. So, that’s a factor. And he’s hit a ton of ground balls. He has one home run, but if Kim keeps putting balls on the ground, that limits his power upside, obviously. Now, Kim hasn’t chased out of the zone very much. He’s also been better than average at putting the bat on the ball. And we can address the grounders head-on. With help from Baseball Savant, naturally.

Statcast doesn’t quite record every batted ball, but it gets most of them, and Kim ranks in the 88th percentile in average batted-ball speed. That seems great, but then there’s this: Kim has hit his grounders harder. As a matter of fact, Kim leads baseball in average grounder speed. Leads baseball! Higher than 96 miles per hour. It’s good to lead in a contact metric, but then, hard grounders aren’t necessarily better than soft grounders. Generally speaking, hard contact is nearly wasted on a ground ball.

That’s the downside — Kim hits hard grounders, instead of hard flies. Now here’s the upside of that downside. Kim also has baseball’s fourth-highest average grounder launch angle. That might sound kind of funky, but Kim’s grounders so far have an average launch angle of -3.3 degrees. The league average is -9.9 degrees. So of Kim’s grounders recorded, they’ve been closer to the line between grounders and line drives. Here’s how the league has done, in batting average, by grounder launch angle:

  • -5 to 0 degrees: .315 average
  • -10 to -6 degrees: .200
  • -15 to -11 degrees: .154
  • -20 to -16 degrees: .120
  • -25 to -21 degrees: .082

The closer you get to a flat exit, the more productive the batted ball. And that’s intuitive, I think, because those are the most like line drives, and defenders have the least time to react. Here’s Kim against Dellin Betances last Friday:

That was recorded as a ground ball. As a bonus, that features Kim making solid contact against elite-level velocity, but the point is that while Kim hit a grounder, he really hit more of a line-drive grounder. And there’s evidence that could be a skill of his. If this were to keep up, Kim wouldn’t hit a bunch of dingers, but he would hit liners and he’d end up with a strong average and BABIP. He’s used a lot of his hard contact on grounders, which is bad, but those grounders have almost been like liners, which is good. You understand. You’re a smart person!

Not every Kim batted ball has been recorded, but on the 15 without Statcast readings, Kim has gone 5-for-15 with two doubles, so I don’t think we’re missing a bunch of horrible contact. And data points get dropped for every hitter. We can use only what we have, and for Kim, there’s a good thing about the bad thing. And, you know, maybe in time he’ll start to elevate the ball even more. I don’t know what he’s going to do, and last year Kang hit more fly balls after April and May. If Kim puts that contact in the air, that’s great. If he stays as he is, that’s fine. Hyun Soo Kim is looking like he can cut it. Take that, March.

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 Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

Isn’t that the Derek Jeter formula? Hit a lot of ground balls really hard? He is hitting ground balls at a Jeter-esque rate.

Barney Coolio
7 years ago

Isn’t Ichiro Suzuki a more apt comparison?

Joey Butts
7 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Thass raycess!