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International Free Agent Profile: Hyun-Soo Kim

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South Korean outfielder Hyun-Soo Kim is looking to play baseball in the United States. Known as "The Hitting Machine", Kim has reportedly signed a two-year deal with the Orioles.

Hyun-Soo Kim
Hyun-Soo Kim
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Hyun-Soo Kim was born on January 12, 1988 in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. He attended Shinil High School, and played baseball, but went undrafted in the KBO Draft. During a training camp with the Doosan Bears, Kim so impressed Bears management that they signed him to a contract. Improbably, the 18-year-old received a professional at-bat that year, coming to the plate once in 2006 and making an out.

The left-hander returned for the 2007 season and saw much more playing time. In 99 games, Kim had a breakout season, batting .273/.335/.398 in 353 plate appearances. He placed second in Rookie of the Year voting, losing to teammate Tae-Hoon Lim, whom the Bears had selected first overall in the 2005 KBO Draft. The impressive performance earned Kim a spot on the South Korean National Team in the 2008 Olympics. The outfielder hit .370/.393/.444 in the games, helping his team win the gold medal.

While the 2007 Rookie of the Year Award marked a high point for Lim, whose career then began tailing off, Hyun-Soo Kim was just getting started. He had a mammoth sophomore season, batting .357/.454/.509 in 126 games. He led the league in batting average and on-base percentage, was fourth in slugging percentage and runs scored, and fifth in runs batted in. Despite the numbers, he finished second in KBO MVP voting, 24 votes behind pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim.

In 2009, Hyun-Soo Kim was once again selected to be on the South Korean National Team, this time for the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Playing as the starting left fielder for South Korea, Kim batted an impressive .393/.514/.500 in nine games. His eleven hits tied him for fourth most in the competition with Yoenis Cespedes, and his seven walks tied him for fourth with Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Delgado, and Akinori Iwamura.

When the World Baseball Classic ended, Kim picked up where he left off. For the 2009 season, he batted .357/.448/.589. The 21-year-old hit for nearly an identical average as 2008, and got on base at roughly the same rate, but tapped into his burgeoning power. In 2008, Kim belted nine home runs; in 2009, he hit 23. The outfielder once again found himself among the best in the league in most offensive categories, but once again missed out on winning the KBO MVP Award. The 2010 season was more of the same, with Kim putting up premium stats and placing as a runner up to the MVP Award.

In 2011, Kim slumped to a .301/.392/.444 batting line. In 2012, he further struggled, hitting .291/.358/.382. The power that the left-hander had discovered the previous two seasons dried up, as Kim totaled 13 and seven home runs in those two seasons, respectively.

Despite the numbers trending in the wrong direction, Hyun-Soo Kim was selected to the South Korean National Team for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The 25-year-old hit .250 in 13 plate appearances, drawing a walk and driving in two runs. Perhaps the international competition reignited the fire inside the outfielder, as he returned to his previous form during the 2013 season, hitting .302/.382/.470 in 122 games. He was able to maintain that level of production into the 2014 season, batting .322/.396/.488.

In 2015, Hyun-Soo Kim returned to the form that made him a perennial MVP candidate. The 27-year-old appeared in 141 games and hit .326/.438/.541, slugging a career-high 28 home runs. In the postseason he continued hitting, batting .421 in Doosan's five-game victory over the Samsung Lions in the Korea Series.

When the afterglow of the Korea Series Championship wore off, Kim filed for international free agency, having accrued the equivalent of nine full seasons in the league. Though he was concentrating on participating in the Premier 12 Tournament—a tournament in which he was later named MVP, hitting .333 with 13 RBIs—the outfielder let it be known that he was looking to play with an MLB team. "I haven't had a chance to set specific plans for my future because I wanted to concentrate on the Premier 12," he said. "I will have to talk to my agent afterward, but there's no reason to turn down interest from major league clubs. I'd love to play in the majors."

YEAR AGE G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2011 23 130 561 .301 .392 .444 13 71 63 5/8
2012 24 122 491 .291 .358 .381 7 46 50 6/9
2013 25 122 510 .302 .382 .470 16 62 71 2/6
2014 26 125 528 .322 .396 .488 17 53 45 2/2
2015 27 141 630 .326 .438 .541 28 101 63 11/16

Kim is a contact-oriented hitter, though he has some power. According to a scout that Jeff Passan spoke to, the left-hander "doesn't have raw power like [Byung-Hp] Park or [Dae-Ho] Lee, but he's exactly what teams are looking for. He's just great at putting bat on ball. He's got a Royal-type offensive profile." The outfielder did not earn his nickname, "The Hitting Machine", for nothing. He is currently third among all active KBO players with at least 3,000 plate appearances with a .318 batting average. He is a four-time Golden Glove winner—2008, 2009, 2010, and 2015—awarded to the best player at every position.

Kim has an elite eye at the plate, regularly drawing a high number of unintentional walks while keeping his strikeout rate staggeringly low. Over the course of his career, the 27-year-old has drawn 587 walks to 501 strikeouts, walking more than he struck out in six of his nine seasons in professional ball. In 2015, he accrued 630 plate appearances and drew 101 walks to 63 strikeouts. To put that in context, the last time an MLB player put up comparable numbers was 2008, when Albert Pujols drew 104 walks while striking out 54 times. In 2015, nine MLB players walked 90 or more times last season, and Jose Bautista had the fewest strikeouts with 106. Whether Kim will be able to maintain such an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio against MLB pitchers remains to be seen, but for what it is worth, fellow Korean hitter Jung-Ho Kang's strikeout rate remained roughly what it had been in the KBO, though his walk rate dropped significantly (14 percent to 9 percent).

C.J. Nitkowski, who played baseball in South Korea and has firsthand experience playing against Kim in 2009 and 2010, believes that the outfielder can be a solid MLB contributor. Combining what scouts said with his own gut feelings, he believes that Kim can be a .275/.350 hitter, with 10-15 home run power. In doing research on his estimates, Nitkowski surprisingly discovered that only 18 MLB players hit .275+/.350+ with ten or more home runs. Of those eighteen, only four were outfielders: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, and Shin-Soo Choo.

Defensively, Kim is solid in left field, and leads the KBO in innings played, putouts, and assists over the past three years. He is unlikely to provide much surplus value from his defense, though. The left-hander played first base a handful of times through the 2015 season, but is by no means proficient at the position. He is a left fielder, first and foremost.

Citing his experience playing against Kim, C.J. Nitkowski also noted that the outfielder has all of the intangibles boxes checked: he is well respected by his teammate, loves the game of baseball, wants nothing more than to succeed, and has a personality that is fun to be around. The Doosan Bears marketed their left fielder, and any MLB club that signed him would be able to do the same.

The Mets are reportedly interested in obtaining a left-handed outfielder to platoon with Juan Lagares, either through trade or through free agency. While Kim does not play center field, Curtis Granderson—who has experience playing center—can be shifted into center field on days when Juan Lagares is not playing, opening an position for Kim to play outfield. As of this writing, however, it appears that Kim will sign a two-year deal with the Orioles.