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With His Improved Play, Orioles' Hyun Soo Kim Provides Plenty Of Intrigue

June 15, 2016
It may be the most interesting story in Baltimore this year.

It has international intrigue. It has a misunderstood protagonist who is seeking and finding redemption. And it is ongoing, unfolding.

Given how it all started, it's impossible to know how this tale will end, so more twists and turns are possible. 

Being so clearly watched and dissected was not Hyun Soo Kim's goal when he signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the Orioles in December. The Korean superstar was fascinated by Major League Baseball, and he wanted to see how his keen batting eye and ability to make contact would translate at the world's top level. 

The Orioles, particularly executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, were curious, too. But the curiosity quickly turned into buyer's remorse. 

Kim was a disaster in spring training, going hitless in his first 23 at-bats and finishing the exhibition season with eight hits, all singles.

The Orioles wanted the 28-year-old veteran of the Korea Baseball Organization to go down to Triple-A Norfolk, the highest level of the minors, to get more accustomed to playing baseball in the United States, and, particularly, with hitting an accelerated fastball that's not common in Korea.

But, based on the deal Kim signed, he had the right to refuse a minor league assignment. And he exercised that right. His decision was not received well by a faction of the organization's fan base that felt Kim was not being a team player -- and that the money spent on him would be wasted.  

So, on April 4, Kim ran down the Opening Day orange carpet at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and was greeted by a mixed reception, including audible boos, before he had ever appeared in a game for the Orioles. Kim admitted he heard the boo birds, and he said he would do everything he could to win over the hometown fans. 

Meanwhile, veteran Orioles center fielder Adam Jones called the intermittent booing "very, very disrespectful and distasteful." Kim appreciated his teammates defending him, especially Jones, the longest-tenured Oriole. 

"I really appreciate Adam's comments about that," Kim said, at the time, through interpreter Danny Lee. "Now what I feel like is I will try my best to get back to how I was before [in Korea] and actually contribute to the team so there are no boos for me and actually only cheers for me. So I am going to make sure I prepare myself to be a good player."

For about a month or so, nothing really happened. Kim played sparingly. When he did, he hit. It just wasn't often enough to make a difference.

Behind the scenes, though, a lot was happening. Hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh was working with Kim, trying to get him to read which pitches were coming and how to react to them. He had Kim stand at various distances away from a pitching machine, say, 40 feet, 50 feet, 60 feet and back again, sometimes swinging, sometimes taking. It was a way to help him adjust and react to different velocities, because it really is impossible to work on timing such high velocity pitches when you don't know what's coming. 

"We did the distance thing more than cranking the machine up even more. So it was more of a challenge to get closer, move back. Move back farther and kind of get an understanding that you can get ready and you can adjust to the ball," Coolbaugh said. "What happens then is you have that freedom in your mind of not having to cheat to a pitch. You can get ready and be short to the ball, and you can see the ball as long as you want."

Kim did that throughout April. Coolbaugh said Kim would keep swinging, keep working, keep trying to better adjust to pitches and speeds.

"He'd hit a bucket of balls off the tee and then go on and hit three different times off a machine that was full of [150] balls," Coolbaugh said. "He'd hit until they were empty."

He was carrying that repetition of a concise swing over to games. And each time he got a chance to start, he made the most of it. He started eight games between Opening Day and May 24 -- the club's 43rd game. He then started 11 times in the Orioles' next 13 contests, compiling multi-hit efforts in five of those. 

His season average teetered around .380 during that period, with his on-base percentage around .450. With that success, he earned the trust and praise of Orioles manager Buck Showalter.

"He's handling a lot of pitches and not missing the pitches that he can handle. I said in the spring, and especially as the season went on, the process and the stages he's gone through, he's kind of prepared for this," Showalter said. "He's taken great advantage of it. We're lucky. He's been right in the middle of just about everything for us, it seems."

Kim has kept it humble -- whether that's his personality or he simply doesn't want to jinx a good thing. He keeps talking about working harder and continuing to build on these experiences as a major leaguer.

"I definitely feel great about getting the opportunity to play every day on the field, and performance-wise, I can't say I'm satisfied with everything that I have done," Kim said. "There are a lot of things I can improve on and show that I'm capable of doing. And so I'll make sure I won't live in what's happened in the past, but I'll try to move on to the next phase."

What's remarkable is that Kim has accomplished what he has so far against pitchers he's never faced, with arsenals that he's never encountered. And, in two months, he's gone from a bench player being booed to a regular that's become an integral part of a contending club. 

"There were hurdles all over the place," Orioles right fielder Mark Trumbo said about Kim. "The fans weren't, I know at one point, all that receptive to him here. But that seems to have changed, and that's kind of what you aim to do is change people's opinions based on the quality of your work. He works as hard as anyone in here, he's meticulous. Obviously, he cares quite a bit about the right things, and he's been a pleasure to have as a teammate."

Kim is the Orioles' story of the year so far. And there are several more months -- and more chapters -- to go.

Dan Connolly is the senior writer and content editor for BaltimoreBaseball.com.

Issue 222: June 2016