Orioles' Hyun Soo Kim finding ways to adjust and succeed despite limited opportunities

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Hyun Soo Kim has find a way to get acclimated to America even though his playing time has been limited.

When Hyun Soo Kim was begrudgingly kept on the Orioles' Opening Day roster by a management team that wanted him to go down to the minors to get accustomed to the American game, the South Korean outfielder's future was difficult to project.

How would he adjust to major league pitching without regular playing time? How would he fit in with teammates who had watched with interest as his roster status played out in the public eye? How would he perform when he did get a chance?

That the answer to all three is, by all accounts, surprisingly well as the season's first month draws to a close seems to be a testament to both Kim and the environment the Orioles have created around him, even if most of what shows his transition is going well occurs on days when he's not in the lineup.

And it all leaves open the possibility that the team might get more of a return on their $7 million investment in him than it appeared they would have after a disastrous start to spring training.

"He's a hard worker," manager Buck Showalter said. "Everybody's pulling for this guy. He's getting compensated for it — I got it, he knows that. But it's more than that. The guy, he's handled some things that have been thrown his way that he hasn't had to have probably in quite a while."

On Saturday, Showalter put Kim in the Orioles lineup for just the fourth time in 23 games. But when he has played, he has hit. Kim entered Saturday with six hits in 11 at-bats, including singles in each of his two pinch-hit cameos. He has also walked twice, with two strikeouts.

Such regular-season numbers seemed impossible to fathom after he opened his American career without a hit in 24 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League, and it looked like a steep adjustment was needed. Once he collected his first hit, he ended up putting together better plate appearances. That stretch, however, coincided with the Orioles' decision that they'd like him to start the season in the minors.

Kim declined, as was his right because of a clause in his contract that required his consent for such an assignment, and he became a seldom-used part of one of the best teams in the majors.

Kim and hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh attribute some of the success in his limited opportunities through the season's first month to the extensive work he does on days when he's not in the lineup.

"He's hitting off the machine a lot, and I think that's just keeping him toned to hitting with some velocity because when you sit for a while, getting that timing and seeing the ball coming, it's not the same off a pitcher but just the velocity," Coolbaugh said.

"The Korean work ethic and the Japanese work ethic, from my experience in the past, is they don't take days off. I think he just wants to maintain his sharpness by swinging the bat and continually swinging the bat. He's made some adjustments, and he's trying to maintain and create that same feeling every night, so when the opportunity comes he feels pretty confident in the box."

The adjustments aren't major, Coolbaugh said, but allow Kim to have a cleaner, shorter path to the baseball and get to pitches he wasn't able to in spring training. Kim wouldn't see so much extra pitching in the batting cage if he was in the lineup more often, but the Orioles have found it has helped him adjust so far. If his swing wasn't in a good place, Coolbaugh said, he wouldn't be doing as much work to maintain it as he has. Instead, Kim would be reining it back a bit.

As he dealt harder pitches than he was used to in spring training, Kim often cheated on fastballs and wasn't able to follow his normal hitting approach of staying back on the ball and hitting it the other way.

Kim said the velocity of pitching machines is helping him adjust during the games, even if he's fortunate to have the batting line he does.

Three of his six hits entering Saturday were infield singles, though his average exit velocity of 92.2 mph was well above the league average of 89.1 mph.

"The outcome so far has been luckier than it should have been, I think," Kim said through interpreter Danny Lee. "I'll try my best to make it keep happening, to make sure I see the balls in the cage to get prepared and show it in the game."

The adjustment at the plate has been shown sporadically as the team finds places to use him. The off-field adjustment, and Kim's standing in the clubhouse, can be seen during every game he's not playing.

When Kim isn't playing, he's often found right next to pitcher Mike Wright in the dugout. There on the top step, the friendship the two formed training at vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson's house in California this offseason is on display for all to see.

Wright's resting state between starts seems to be smiling and joking, and Kim has been caught in his orbit all month. Kim's favorite part? The seed-throwing celebration they've developed after every home run.

Kim said: "He taught me, 'That's what we do. We throw seeds at each other.' We do all kinds of stuff with the seeds — throw them, hit them."

"He gets just as excited as the guy who hit the home run," Wright said. "That's what we can do, help the team morale."

Wright treats it like his relationship with any other Orioles player, though he has known since those days in California that Kim was going to be a good teammate. He said everyone not playing has a responsibility to keep spirits high in the dugout, and to him that seems to extend to Kim.

That kind of friendship isn't lost on the seldom-used outfielder.

"I'm definitely feeling great, having a comfortable relationship, a good relationship with the teammates, kind of messing around," Kim said. "Even not playing — in that way, I feel welcomed by everybody. I'm kind of getting the feeling of getting closer to all the players."

Kim said it's also helping the massive adjustment he has had to make off the field, too.

"I liked Baltimore from the very beginning, so I had no problem making adjustments to the new lifestyles here," Kim said. "Most of all, my teammates here are very friendly — everybody is. That's helping me greatly to make adjustments here, and personally also. Everything's going great."

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