29 March 2016

Hyun Soo Kim And How We Got Here

Hyun Soo Kim appears to be reliving the same moment he experienced in 2006.  The surprise that past success does not guarantee that those on the next level will automatically hand you anything.  More than that, that showing oneself to be exceptional in years past means less than what you show in the past month.  When it happened before, he was a kid who had just completed high school.  Kim won the Lee Yeong-min Award, which is awarded to the best hitter in Korean high school baseball.  He submitted his name for the KBO draft and every team past him by in every round.  He wound up signing as an undrafted free agent with the Doosan Bears and was forced to reestablish himself by playing on the Bears minor league club.

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)11314768230142597501.318.406.488
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/29/2016.

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.


Dave said...

If the Orioles gave him $7 million just for a spring training cameo with the hope he would dominate immediately....well, that was stupid. Kang also hit under .200 in his first 70 or so plate appearances in America last year (from spring training up until April 29th) and that turned out alright. It is not surprising that a player who is playing at what is generally considered a AA level would struggle when first exposed to a higher level. It happens all the time. Kim appears to be adjusting already, but apparently it was already too late.

Jon Shepherd said...

This gets back to the power issue. Kang struggled, but he also hit 3 doubles, a triple, and 2 home runs. If Kim showed the ability to hit for power with his few hits, then we probably would be talking about the transition more. It is difficult to see those skills when those skills are quiet.

But, yes, the opportunities are short in Spring Training and a lot of adjustments have to be made. It might be easier if the club was not trying to keep the window open. It might be easier if Reimold was less desirable to them or more readily replaceable.

It certainly is not a good situation.

Dave said...

It is true that Kang has significantly more power, but that was already known by all. Honestly, I did expect to see more power, as Kim's home park in Korea is very home-run suppressive (bigger than the average MLB park) and he still hit 28. Almost anything can happen in a small sample, though, and Kim has hit a few balls to the warning track area. If anything, it is more worrisome that his walk rate was so low, although again anything can happen in a small sample. Hopefully, they will work out a deal where Kim can go to AAA for a time if that's what the O's think is needed, but I think that Kim may view himself as a "failure" if that happens, so that doesn't come without risks as well.

Jon Shepherd said...

Right, the point I was trying to make is that Kang was able to flash his skills and help talent evaluators in that way. Kim has softer skills and has been unable to validate what the club originally thought they had. In Spring Training, the tools are clunky and Kim has not looked good on any of the ways one evaluates baseball given the few opportunities that Spring Training presents.

Glen L said...

Isn't Kim a left handed hitter?

Jon Shepherd said...

Man...why yes. Yes he is. Shows how much I have been working on my real job. My brain is a bit scattered. How does that change things? Well...Reimold and him are not competing with each other. Kim is competing with lefty not in organization.

Roger said...

LOL, Jon, I was wondering about that comment. It really sounds like Kim not only needs some more reps in the minors (maybe even at AA if that will help with his confidence) but also needs to figure out how to do some real conditioning. Really, if you're competing for a major league roster, don't you diet, do aerobics and weight training and spend every waking hour in the batting cage? The whole crap about longer spring training is just another example of another culture thinking that their way works better than the American way. Get over the Korean way and hop to it - aggressive conditioning.

Anonymous said...

Classless, bumbling Dan!

Gil said...

I saw Kim play in person while vacationing in Florida. He has the defensive skills of a below average high school outfielder. He has no range and a very weak arm. I think the Orioles were surprised to see how poor he looked in the outfield. I think that, as much as his weak offensive performance indicated to them his signing was a mistake from the gitgo. He didn't even have good batting practices and I didn't see him hit one out in BP. I really don't know what the talent level is in Korean baseball, but if he was a superstar there, it's probably on par with Independent League baseball

Gil said...

I read somewhere that the average fastball in the Korean League is 87 to 91 miles per hour. I have season tickets to the York Revolution and that's about what the average is in the Independent League. Kids are throwing in the 90's in the low minors in professional baseball. I agree Kim only had 40 some at bats but he clearly looked over matched facing mainly A and AA pitching. The Orioles apparently signed him mainly on the advice form our far east Scouts and had little other input or or experience to go by. Clearly they now regret the signing and are looking for an honorable way out of the contract. You can read between the lines when Duquette and Buck discuss the issue. The Norfolk talk is a way to buy time until they work out of the contract in my opinion. The Kim train has left the station

Anonymous said...

Why all the uproar over little Gonzo?! We fished him out of the Mexican league, for Chrissakes, as Earl would say, and got 3 good years out of him, our luck ran out, be happy we can spend the money elsewhere!!!

Jon Shepherd said...

Stop using Chris' name in vain.