Unwanted for most of April, and booed on Opening Day, Hyun Soo Kim has quietly emerged as one of the driving forces for the 2016 Baltimore Orioles. Since forcing his way into the equation in June, the Korean who is playing his first year of Major League Baseball, has been a bit of a revelation. In 62 games, he is now batting .321/.401/.435 with 24 walks against only 31 strikeouts. There have been only a handful of games that Kim started in which he did not safely reach base.
The problem, for the Orioles, is that Kim is not starting everyday. He’s only starting roughly two-thirds of the team’s games. Manager Buck Showalter insists on continuing to utilize Kim in a platoon role with right-handed hitting Nolan Reimold.
It may be about time to reconsider that arrangement.
For the first two months of his platoon role, Kim was assisted primarily by Joey Rickard. Another rookie, Rickard was also a revelation for the Orioles. He was batting a very solid .313/.367/.494 against left-handed pitching. Unfortunately, Rickard hit the DL after suffering a hand injury in the first week of the second half and is out for the foreseeable future. Reimold has been inserted into the primary platoon slot opposite Kim in left field. There’s only one problem — he can’t hit left-handed pitching to save his life this year. The 32-year-old veteran is batting .190/.269/.286 against lefties this year with a near-30 percent strikeout rate. In the second half, he is batting a measly .087/.222/.152.
Something tells me it’s time for a change.
At this point of the season, the only reason to continue using Kim in a platoon role is stubbornness, which is something Showalter can be accused of. To date, there is plenty of evidence that supports the notion that Kim should be more than able to hold his own against southpaws. For starters, hitters who are capable of batting over .300 for nearly 250 plate appearances are typically able to handle the bat fairly well. That’s the reputation Kim brought over from Korea. He is a smart, patient hitter who knows the strike zone and will not get himself out. Kim has great bat control, and has repeatedly beaten the shift by hitting the ball the other way. There’s a reason he was given the nickname “Machine” in his homeland.
While the rest of the Orioles’ lineup, namely Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, attempt to figure themselves out in the second half, Kim has remained remarkably consistent. Though he does not have enough at-bats to qualify, Kim would rank in or around the top-20 in the league in all major plate discipline statistics. While Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop chase over 40 percent of balls outside the strike zone, Kim is down at a cool 23.5 percent. He also makes contact on close to 90 percent of strikes he swings at. Kim mostly hits groundballs and line drives, not those pesky pop-ups that have tripped up the Orioles’ lineup since the All-Star break.
There should be no reason not to try Kim in an everyday role. There is no data yet that shows he cannot hit left-handed pitching, while there is plenty of data that shows Reimold is nowhere near figuring out the southpaws this year. In his first year in the big leagues, Kim is hitting at or around most of his Korean career values. There has not been a massive learning curve for him because he continues to play to his strengths. At the very least, a week-long experiment starting Kim everyday is worth a shot.
Here’s a very modest proposal — Kim should be bumped up from his customary two-hole into the leadoff spot. Without any guarantee that the Orioles will get anything out of Davis and Trumbo for the rest of the year, Jones should be dropped down into a run-producing slot. While the Orioles may lose a bit of power at the top of the order with Jones dropping down, they stand to benefit from Kim’s better on-base skills. With Jones getting hot at the plate in August, he is more valuable driving Kim in than being on base when Kim singles.
The Orioles cannot afford to get complacent with their lineup and hope that Reimold figures out how to handle his platoon role. The explosive offense that made the Orioles a threat to win every game in the first half of the year is gone, replaced by an inconsistent bunch of over-anxious hitters. Kim is, in many ways, the antithesis of the rest of the lineup, relatively slump-proof because he refuses to get himself out. This team needs a shot in the arm as they prepare to face a difficult stretch of games against playoff contenders. It took plenty of prodding to get Showalter to accept Kim on his roster and in his lineup to start the season. How much more prodding will it take to make him a permanent fixture in left field for the final two months of the season. Hopefully not too much.