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Orioles Outfielder Hyun Soo Kim Faces Challenging Adjustment To Majors

May 16, 2016
Na-na-na … na-na-nanana … Kim Hyun Soo!

If you had attended a Doosan Bears game in the Korean Baseball Organization anytime during the last few years, you likely would have heard thousands of fans chanting along with a catchy tune -- a personalized theme song for popular outfielder Hyun Soo Kim.

Now in his first year in Baltimore, Kim uses the song as his at-bat music at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It -- and he -- hasn't quite taken the city by storm so far.

Kim, 28, became the first South Korean position player in Orioles history when he signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Birds Dec. 23, 2015. He was the Orioles' latest attempt to strike gold in Korea under executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, whose previous forays into the market were duds. In February 2014, the Orioles signed Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon to a three-year deal, only for Yoon to return to Korea after one ineffective season at Triple-A Norfolk, never making a major league appearance. Prior to that, Duquette angered the KBO in February 2012, when he inappropriately tried to sign 17-year-old pitcher Seong-Min Kim without requesting KBO approval, an action that temporarily got O's scouts banned from attending games in Korea.

Hyun Soo Kim, though, was supposed to be the shining star who would make up for the Orioles' previous missteps in Korea. He was one of the finest players in the KBO, a nine-year veteran who starred in nearly all facets of the game -- and, yes, even had his own theme song. Kim garnered four KBO Gold Glove awards for his defensive work in left field, but he was known especially for his bat, compiling a career .318 batting average and .895 OPS during 1,131 games. His power was nothing to sneeze at, either, as he posted three seasons of 20 or more homers, including a career-best 28 blasts and 121 RBIs in 2015.

Perhaps most appealing to the Orioles was Kim's lifetime .406 OBP, bolstered by a patient plate approach that led him to more walks (597) than strikeouts (501) during his KBO career. On the surface, Kim appeared to be the perfect fit for a free-swinging Orioles lineup that desperately needed an infusion of on-base ability. Even as Kim shifted from the notoriously hitter-friendly KBO to the majors, his plate discipline figured to translate well, making him a potential top-of-the-lineup hitter for the Birds.

Then things took a discouraging turn.

Kim's first taste of American baseball brought a harsh adjustment period -- one so crippling that it nearly ended his major league career before it began. At spring training in Sarasota, Fla., Kim went hitless in his first 23 at bats, swinging the bat with little authority and seemingly growing more frustrated by the day. Manager Buck Showalter expressed public concern about Kim's inability to drive the ball, and he seemed especially displeased with Kim's shaky defense in left field.

Kim's leash shortened with each passing game. On March 26, Fox Sports reported the O's were internally discussing whether they could work out a deal to send Kim back to Korea. The Orioles didn't confirm the story, but they made it clear Kim was losing his spot, not only as the starting left fielder, but on the Opening Day roster at all. Kim finished spring training with eight hits -- all singles -- in 45 at bats, and Showalter benched him for the final week.

"It looks like he's not going to be on the 25-man roster to start the season," Duquette told the media.

But the story didn't end there.

As part of his contract, Kim had the right to refuse a minor league assignment. The Orioles, after several discussions with Kim, couldn't convince him to accept a demotion to Norfolk. They also couldn't work out a deal to return him to the KBO. Not wanting to eat Kim's entire $7 million salary by releasing him, the Orioles turned to their last resort -- they begrudgingly included him on the Opening Day roster, even with no clear plan of how to use him.

As expected for a player who wasn't intended to be on the roster, Kim found himself buried on the bench during the regular season's first month. Kim appeared in just six of the Orioles' 23 April games, starting four of them. During the Orioles' pregame introductions on Opening Day April 4, Kim even got booed by some fans in the sellout crowd who felt he hadn't earned his place on the team.

This tale, though, has another interesting twist.

For all the concern about Kim's difficult adjustment, and all the criticism about his perceived inability to hit major league pitching, his bat looked more than healthy during his sporadic appearances in April. Kim reached base in 11 of his 17 plate appearances, including nine hits. He began his major league career with a two-hit afternoon April 10 -- both infield singles -- and capped the opening month with a 3-for-4 performance April 30, lashing two opposite-field singles and smoking a double down the right-field line.

After his hectic first few weeks as an Oriole, Kim was glad to be able to help the team in whatever small role he could, working behind the scenes to improve in the meantime.

"I'm trying my best to get back to how I did in Korea," Kim said through a translator. "It's not much of a difficulty playing games once in a while, but it's more like I'm finally able to contribute to the team winning."

Showalter and the rest of the Orioles were glad to see Kim make a contribution as well.

"Regardless of what's going on, just from a teammate to teammate and human being to human being, you want to see him have some success and contribute a little bit, and he did," Showalter said. "I think everybody takes a lot of satisfaction in getting him out there and feeling a part of it."

Kim has worked to regain the hitting mechanics he used in the KBO, which he felt he'd abandoned somewhat in Sarasota.

"Back when I was in Korea, I was able to hit the balls hard, and I was swinging hard," Kim said. "But during spring training, I was a bit pressured to make results, so I was just trying to make contact off the pitchers. Now I'm going back to how I was before. I'm swinging harder in order to have better quality hits."

Kim, who struggled to make solid contact off high-velocity fastballs in the spring, has mostly been shielded from hard throwers during the regular season. His three-hit game April 30 came against Chicago White Sox right-hander Mat Latos, whose fastball regularly clocked in at less than 90 mph.

Kim knows that hitting the fastball consistently is his next challenge. It's a test that the previous position player to jump from the KBO to the majors, Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang, passed with flying colors, batting .287 with an .816 OPS and 15 homers during his rookie year in 2015.

"My old friend Kang, from the Pirates, gave me a lot of advice," Kim said. "You have to see more fastballs in order for you to get used to the velocity of the pitchers here. … I'm trying to get used to the fastball I've not really been able to see during the games. So I'm staying in the cage and working a while with the [pitching] machines to get ready for the everyday games."

Thus far in 2016, Showalter has been picking and choosing his spots to play Kim based on the pitching matchups.

"You kind of have an idea about guys, who they might match up well against initially," Showalter said. "But nobody knows. I said it in spring the whole time when he hadn't had a hit or whatever. Nobody knows. You don't know. I still don't. I know he's had some good at bats off pitchers, certain guys. We'll see if he can go to the next level against some other guys at some point."

For now, Showalter thinks Kim can gain valuable experience in adjusting to the majors even when he's not on the field.

"I think Kim's benefited a little bit by being able to kind of step back and watch something unfold that he didn't know what was going to happen," Showalter said. "The stadiums, the pitchers, the fields, the lights. All the things that we do differently here."

Kim hasn't forgotten the lukewarm reception he received on Opening Day, but he aims to change the minds of skeptical Orioles fans.

"Going back to Opening Day, there was a slight booing for me, so that was slightly in my mind," Kim said April 10 after his debut. "So all I thought about going into the game was try not to get booed anymore."

If Kim can work his way into more frequent playing time and resemble the player who excelled in Korea, perhaps Orioles fans will sing a different tune:

Na-na-na … na-na-nanana … Kim Hyun Soo!

Editor's note: Kim uses a translator, who relayed his message in the third person. In this story, third-person pronouns are changed to first person.

Issue 221: May 2016