After a miserable 0-for-23 start to his career with the Baltimore Orioles, Hyun Soo Kim has reeled off eight hits in his past 17 at-bats. The Korean import had many worried with his lengthy hitless streak, but not much has changed over the past week for the left-handed hitter. Kim remains a veteran batsman, capable of making contact and avoiding the strikeout. He has still struck out only six times all spring.
It’s still not all sunshine and roses for Kim as he makes the transition to the States. He has not yet recorded an extra-base hit, and continues to hit far too many balls on the ground. Buck Showalter has worked with Kim on getting back to doing what worked for him in the KBO. As the hits have begun dropping in, it has appeared that a major weight was lifted from Kim’s shoulders. His lengthy 0-fer should not be viewed as anything more than an honest-to-goodness baseball slump, replete with several hard-hit balls finding their way to leather.
As Kim has raised his average from .000 to .200, the question of whether or not he could be counted on in the Orioles’ starting nine should be put to bed. Kim has shown enough to warrant more than a platoon role in left field, but where will he hit in the lineup?
The two-hole hitter has historically been very much forgotten about or overlooked. The leadoff man gets all the love at the top of the order, but the second man up is still responsible for setting the table for the big boppers. Traditionally, managers have wanted their two-hole guys to do a little bit of everything, but making contact consistently is one of the biggest demands. You need a hitter batting second who can help keep the train moving ahead of the power hitters.
Going strictly on traditional definitions of what a number-two hitter should look like, Hyun Soo Kim is a perfect option for the Orioles. He will not bog down the Orioles with a ton of strikeouts, and is a good candidate to pull off hit-and-runs with Manny Machado. With time, Kim should develop an ability to slap the ball to left field to beat the shift — not something he ever had to worry about in Korea. He has enough command of the bat to force defenses to play him more honestly. The 28-year-old profiles as a solid number-two hitter who should provide more consistent offense than last year’s options, Jimmy Paredes and Gerardo Parra.
Buck Showalter, however, is far from traditional when it comes to filling out a lineup card. He may prefer to ease Kim into regular-season action in the lower third of the order. If Kim is batting down in the order, the Orioles have very few options available to keep the right-left-right-left pattern in place at the top of the lineup. Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis are locks to hit first, third, and fourth. As the team is currently constructed, only Pedro Alvarez makes sense for the two-spot. Alvarez batted second in Sunday’s exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays and hit a grand slam (albeit off a pitcher with no shot at the 25-man roster).
Unfortunately, Alvarez is far from an ideal candidate to bat second. He has struck out 809 times in 742 big-league games. Alvarez has never batted over .250 for a full season and has a career on-base percentage of .309. Over the past two years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Alvarez has been able to curtail his strikeouts to some degree, but still struggles to get on base. The Orioles have a hard enough time keeping the line moving, and adding another low-OBP, high-strikeout hitter to the top of the order is hardly going to help.
The Orioles may well lead the American League in home runs in 2016. On the downside, leading the league in strikeouts is just as likely. This team needs a hitter behind Machado and ahead of Jones who can be counted on to put the ball in play and avoid the empty out. There will be plenty of chances for the second hitter to drive Machado in with less than two outs — the exact situations when striking out is not just another out.
There are pros and cons to batting Kim second and Alvarez seventh. Batting Kim second could lead to more consistent contact from the two-hole, but very little power. There could also be another adjustment period for him once the regular season begins. Alvarez will strike out close to once a game, but brings a bigger threat of the extra-base hit. The Orioles will remain very stationary on the bases if he is batting in the top of the order, but what else is new?
As Opening Day nears, Buck Showalter has a complicated decision on his hands with the two-hole in his lineup. He can sacrifice contact for power and go with Kim, or gamble on Alvarez running into enough fastballs. Batting Kim down in the order with J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop could help to offset the on-base deficiencies of the shortstop and second baseman.
The end result will likely be a mixture of both, with Alvarez sitting against some tough left-handers. Expect Showalter to slowly ease Kim into the 162-game grind in the bottom third of the order. The Orioles have not taken a traditional approach to lineup construction under Showalter, and this year will be no different.