With an Ichiro-like swing of the bat on Thursday, Hyun-Soo Kim placed a ball neatly over the right field fence at Safeco Field in Seattle, and the Orioles held the all-time record for most homeruns hit by a team in June. Besides the pitcher, Kim was arguably the last guy people expected to get the hit that broke the record, but, what else does this guy do but surprise us?
Kim began his Orioles career long after he began his professional career. He had played with the Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) since 2006, posting a career .318 average with almost 1,300 hits. But, when he arrived in Sarasota and began Spring Training with Baltimore, his start was anything but fast. He batted only .181 through the month of March and, because there was concern that the transition between the KBO and the Major Leagues was so drastic, Buck Showalter and his staff attempted to assign Kim to Triple-A Norfolk. However, a clause in Kim’s contract stated that he had to agree to such a move, and so he refused his demotion. And so began a tumultuous start to his major league career.
For the first month, Showalter was not shy to make it apparent that he did not want Kim to play. Many claimed that he had held the team hostage and, although undeserving, he forced them to give him one of the twenty-five spots on the major league roster based on technicality alone. As it was, Kim appeared more in the background of TV camera angles into the dugout then he did on the field.
But the Korean superstar was not to be denied. He made the most of his few plate appearances in an attempt to prove that he should be given more playing time. In April, he came to the plate a meager fifteen times, yet found a way to get on base in eleven of those instances. Nothing was pretty- nine hits, eight of which were singles, and two walks. But it began to open peoples’ eyes, and so Kim started seeing more time in the lineup.
In May, he saw his number of at-bats jump to 35, and while he didn’t stay as hot at the plate, he kept forcing opponents to work to get him out. He still got on base at a nice clip, making it difficult for Showalter to argue against using him.
June was the biggest determinant. In 72 at-bats, Kim posted a .333 average, an On Base Percentage(OBP) of .422, and had eight RBIs. He was not getting consistent playing time, but it was enough to make a reasonable case that Hyun-Soo Kim was facing major league pitching successfully and with confidence.
There are no signs to show that Showalter will stop platooning Kim with right-handed hitting OF Joey Rickard. Both players are in their first year in the majors and both are showing exciting signs that they’re not settling on a short-term stay. But Kim is older (28) and has more experience, even if it’s from the Korean Baseball Organization. In a lineup that is not lacking guys who have a knack to strikeout when not hitting homeruns, Kim becomes a breath of fresh air- he is willing to get on base no matter what it takes.
Thus far this season, in 144 plate appearances, Kim continues to keep his batting average up. He’s hitting .344 and has drawn 16 walks compared to his 18 strikeouts. He has an OBP of .424, a number in the world of baseball statistics that is quite amazing.
Unfortunately, Kim doesn’t qualify to be considered a league leader in any offensive stat because those numbers are based on a certain amount of plate appearances*. But, to compare anyway, here are some of the names atop the OBP leaderboard. It’s definitely company that could be worse.
- David Ortiz (Boston ) .435, 263 at bats
- Jose Altuve (Houston ) .427, 315 at bats
- Paul Goldschmidt (Arizona ) .426, 289 at bats
- Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels ) .424, 295 at bats
- Matt Carpenter (St. Louis ) .422, 271 at bats
Of course, those guys have “everyday playing time” at bats, but it’s still fun to think that a guy that has never played in the Majors before this year, who has never seen any of the pitchers he’s facing on a game-to-game basis, who played in a league that many scouts say is equivalent to Triple-A, is putting up part-time numbers that mirror the league leaders. And he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
As the Orioles march toward the All-Star break and lead the AL East, it’s players like Hyun-Soo Kim that they will continue to rely on to keep the offense moving. But so far, there is nothing to complain about. The man whose nickname in Korea was “Hitting Machine” seems to be out to prove to the American fan base that he is exactly who they say he is.
*In order to qualify for “league leaderboards” in any offensive statistic, a player must have at least 3.1 plate appearances per his team’s games played. Kim is averaging 1.82 plate appearances per game due to the lack of playing time he received in the beginning of the season, as well as Buck’s tendency to play the pitching matchups