One of several prominent Korean hitters to make the jump to America this offseason, outfielder Hyun-Soo Kim signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Orioles after a decade spent hitting .320 for the Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization. Kim was coming off a monster KBO season, batting .326/.438/.541 with 28 homers in 141 games. He drew 101 walks compared to just 63 strikeouts, hit above .300 for the seventh time in eight seasons, and capped his Korean career by winning a championship at age 28. While not generally viewed as having star potential in the big leagues, Kim seemed like a solid, low-cost pickup for the Orioles. PECOTA projected him for 1.3 WARP in 540 plate appearances, which is decent-regular territory.
And then spring training happened.
Kim went hitless in his first 23 at-bats and by the time he finally started hitting a little bit near the end of camp the Orioles had all but decided he wasn’t going to make the roster. He finished the spring with a .178 batting average, but when the Orioles attempted to send Kim to the minors he refused the assignment citing a clause in the guaranteed, multi-year contract that both sides had agreed to just a few months prior. Rather than releasing Kim and eating the entire $7 million, the Orioles begrudgingly gave him a spot on the Opening Day roster while publicly discussing their displeasure with the team’s hand being forced and then glued him to the bench in what became an awkward, tense situation.
Some of the Camden Yards crowd even booed Kim when he was announced on Opening Day, with Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun writing that “Orioles fans gave their new outfielder a mixed greeting … because they knew he was trotting down the traditional orange carpet against the club’s will.” Kim was essentially following in the Seinfeldian footsteps of George Costanza at Play Now, refusing to be fired with time left on a guaranteed contract and doing the baseball equivalent of crawling through the ventilation to get back into his barricaded office. For quite a while that office was Baltimore’s bench. Kim was absent from the starting lineup in 35 of the first 43 games, but he was productive in the rare chances he received and in late May manager Buck Showalter finally gave him a real opportunity as a platoon bat.
After spending an entire week on the bench Kim started against the Astros on May 25 and went 3-for-3 with two doubles and a walk. He’s started 22 of 34 games since then—plus three cameos off the bench—and has hit .339/.431/.458 with as many walks (16) as strikeouts (16) in 137 total plate appearances this season. In other words, Kim is doing exactly what he did in Korea. Lofty batting average, fantastic plate discipline and strike-zone control, and plenty of gap power. Not bad for a guy who had to literally force the Orioles into keeping him on the team less than three months ago. Meanwhile, the player the Orioles preferred over Kim coming out of spring training, Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard, has an OPS nearly 200 points lower and is hitting .229/.297/.337 in 60 games since a three-week hot streak to begin the season.
Earlier this week our own Patrick Dubuque wrote about how the Orioles keep winning every year despite low expectations and why, at some point, it should cease being a surprise. He made a lot of good points within the article, highlighting areas in which the Orioles have gained an edge over many other teams by taking a slightly different approach to decision-making and roster-building. All of which is true—and Showalter deserves plenty of credit as well—but it also helps to just get lucky once in a while. Baltimore made a smart investment in Kim six months ago, only to erase that sound decision three months ago by placing far too much emphasis on a few dozen at-bats in spring training. Except they were saved from themselves by Kim and his agent, and eventually came around to the idea of giving him another chance. And now they have a 28-year-old rookie outfielder hitting .340 while making less than a decent middle reliever gets as a free agent.
Jung-ho Kang’s success with the Pirates last year opened the door for more Korean-born players to get opportunities (and guaranteed contracts) in America. Kim is thriving in Baltimore, and first baseman Dae-Ho Lee and right-hander Seung Hwan Oh—who both had stints in Japan between Korea and America—have quickly established themselves are impact guys. Lee is the Mariners’ primary first baseman and the 34-year-old KBO veteran has hit .284/.329/.500 with 10 homers in 56 games after signing a minor-league deal. Oh, who inked a one-year, $5 million contract after posting a 1.81 ERA in 11 seasons in Korea and Japan, now has a 1.58 ERA and 53/11 K/BB ratio in 40 innings as the Cardinals’ primary setup man. Kang is also showing that 2015 was no fluke, hitting .257/.331/.542 with 11 homers in 44 games for Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, the most expensive Korean import yet—two-time MVP-winning KBO slugger Byung Ho Park—has largely been a disappointment in Minnesota after the Twins invested $25 million to acquire him. Viewed as Korea’s best power hitter, Park batted .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in 140 games last season and hit .322 with an average of 50 homers and 100 walks per 150 games from 2013-2015. His power has lived up to the hype, as Park has homered 12 times in 244 plate appearances and unleashed several mammoth shots, but the rest of his game has been lacking. Park’s high strikeout rate in Korea was identified right away as a potential red flag and sure enough he’s whiffed in one-third of his plate appearances for the Twins, which is tied for the fourth-highest rate in baseball. His average exit velocity has plummeted as the season has worn on and Park’s batting average on balls in play is an absurdly low .230.
Minnesota spent $25 million hoping that Park could make enough solid contact to hit, say, .260 with 20-30 homers and a decent walk rate. Most projections considered that perfectly reasonable and PECOTA pegged him for .255/.326/.441 with 19 homers in 516 plate appearances. Park’s power has actually been even better than advertised, but he’s still hit just .191/.275/.409 in 62 games because he can’t make consistent contact and simply gives away too many at-bats by hitting .139 with 44 strikeouts and zero walks once he falls behind in the count. After a productive first month he’s hit .158/.252/.304 in his last 40 games and things have gotten so bad for Park of late that the Twins are reportedly considering demoting the 29-year-old to the minors. And, unlike Kim, he doesn’t have the ability to block such a move.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now