In 2007, Kim became a regular, finishing as a runner-up for the Rookie of the Year. In 2008, he finished as runner-up for the Most Valuable Player. And, well, he never stopped being exceptional:
|All Levels (10 Seasons)||1131||4768||230||142||597||501||.318||.406||.488|
When Kim decided after this past season to shift over to the States to play baseball, he was considered by many in Korea to be a sure-fire success. A great amount of hesitation was eliminated by Jung-Ho Kang's success in Pittsburgh last year. Kang certainly had more power and played a key position in the infield, but Kim is thought of as a professional hitter. He just hits and hits and hits. He works at bats. He makes contact. Kim has effectively been a right handed left fielder version of John Olerud in a baseball environment that would greatly appreciate what John Olerud did. In case you forgot, Olerud accrued 58 bWAR over his career, which puts him just outside the threshold of Hall of Fame consideration. Anyway, the point is that Kim was considered exceptional and his skills were considered transferable to the Majors.
I was not as confident as my connections in Korea were. I have not watched a lot of Kim and never saw him in person. All I had was data, imperfect data, and that throws a great deal of uncertainty into the mix. Still, my data, which is based on Kang as well as a handful of recent MLB exports to Korea, was not incredibly impressed with Kim. The model I created did two things well: (1) it assessed home runs well and (2) it assessed walks and strikeouts well. It looked at Kim's home run performance from the past few years and thought he had a 10-12 HR bat, which is what the scouts thought as well. It looked at his walk rate and thought it would be cut in half and that his strikeouts would rise by about 10%. In all, it thought Kim had a fringe fourth outfielder bat.
Again, the model only hit on home runs, walks, and strikeouts. Beyond those three true outcomes, it became far more uncertain. What the model could not do well is figure out contact rates and gap power. That was where the professional hitter value would be found. What Kim specifically did well, the model shrugged and threw out weak estimates. In that gray area, he would need to excel to show good value.
If that was the only issue, the Orioles would likely be smoothing over the difficulty Kim has had this spring. However, Kim's value is even more reliant on that gray area because of a couple more considerations. First, Kim is not fleet-footed. He is smart on the base paths, but does not have the speed to turn long singles into sliding doubles. Kim is not a first to home kind of guy. He is not slow by any means, but it is fair to say he is below average. Second, what Kim lacks in range in the outfield, he doubles up with poor arm strength. If you have watched him play left field this spring, then you know the modest downplay of how well Kim might fit into right field was still an absurdity. I also find it doubtful that he can play a league average left field, but I have found no one to comment on that.
Anyway, from this you can see why Kim was awarded a two year, seven million dollar deal from the Orioles. It was a paltry sum for such an accomplished player because there simply are so many questions regarding his ability to succeed in MLB. At the time, there was some discussion about an team opt out of the contract. If he did not perform well, it was noted that he would be sent back to Korea in a manner similar to the Orioles releasing Suk-min Yoon after the 2014 season (Yoon, who was hammered in Norfolk, enjoyed a rather dominant 2015 in the KBO). However, no firm detail of a team buyout was reported at the time.
When spring training arrived, so did Kim. The first rumblings were not positive. Orioles officials noted that Kim was a little heavy and it was suggested that he was not as prepared because KBO spring training are longer with more emphasis on conditioning players. Drills commenced and curiously little was said about Kim's performance. The scrimmages began and Kim began his descent into an 0-for-twenty something streak. He hit some balls hard, but it was not as if he was spraying the corners and the gaps. His hard hit balls were basically hit at infielders. He worked deep into counts, four-plus pitches per plate appearance, but his swing was often defensive. He often was coming in downward.
The second half of the spring training scrimmage season was more favorable to Kim. The hits started scooting through and falling. Over the course of another twenty plate appearances he was flirting with .400 baseball. Glaringly, he was also flirting with a .400 slugging percentage. As things came together, he still was not driving the ball with authority and was unable to stretch singles into doubles or find the other side of the fence. It is troubling that even when things appeared to be going well that his one tool that needed to carry him was simply producing singles. Additionally, he had earned only a single walk. This was a growing concern.
Of course, what can one say about 40 plate appearances and spring training ones at that? Previous research has found that spring training shifts a projection around 5%, which is not enough to really emerge from the noise. That is complicated in that Kim's projection is built upon a rather scant amount of data relating KBO performances to MLB performances. Even if it was MLB in-season data, it takes about fifty plate appearances to say anything meaningful about walk and strikeout rates. It takes three times as long to say much about anything else.
This likely left the team in a tough spot. The projections are connected to a great deal of uncertainty. The little amount of data available shows a player who is struggling mightily to do anything of much value. And the scouting is largely unimpressed. If Kim was a player who had stomped AAA pitching and put up this kind of spring training performance, he simply would not be considered for a roster spot. The truth is that right now uncertainty is what both is his savior and what damns him. It is also what makes other players look more ideal. A known fringe player or one that performs well in a handful of play often feels more comfortable than the guy who goes out and does poorly.
Joey Rickard was unforeseen. I imagine the original plan was to kick him around in spring training to see if he could handle the fifth outfielder slot. Instead, he just hits and hits and hits. His value has not changed much. He is a fringe outfielder, but you tend to go with the fringe player who is hot than the fringe players who are cold. Rickard will start the season suiting up in left field until he remembers that he is Joey Rickard.
Nolan Reimold was planned. He was going to support Kim in left field and provide insurance in case Kim needed a longer transition or just never made the needed adjustments. He still is that comfortable sweater. His defense can be squirrelly, but his bat can play in a pinch. He is a solid fourth outfielder and has shown more competency at the plate than Kim has.
Pedro Alvarez was not planned. Alvarez is really what has hurt Kim. When the Orioles' plans for filling in right field with another left handed bat evaporated with Dexter Fowler returning to the Cubs, the team got the only meaningful left handed bat remaining. Alvarez is a designated hitter and nothing more, which puts the right handed Mark Trumbo into the outfield. It also creates a modest desire to have another MLB quality offensive left-handed bat on the bench, which the club does not seem to think Kim has established.
What we find now is that there is a discussion about Kim and the potential curiosity the Orioles have for the recently released and left-handed outfielder David Murphy. Murphy used to be good. He used to be a starter. He is now a guy coming off a 0.0 bWAR season who gets spring training invites and contemplates retirement. Murphy is not a great prize. However, he is left-handed and he has experienced success in the not too distant past.
And so we now find ourselves sorting through reported discussions between Kim's camp and the Orioles about releasing him. The optimistic view is that this is just an errant news release that has echoed a bit. The slightly less optimistic view is that the two sides are discussing a way to let Kim spend a month in the minors before making a full decision. The least optimistic view is that the Orioles are following through with what they said was a possibility when Kim signed last winter: that he has not shown himself to be good enough in the opportunities that were available to him and that he will be heading back to the KBO to dominate some more.