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Are We Overlooking Ha Seong Kim?

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Earlier this year I, like most of us, was quarantined in my home with limited ability to go outside and no sports on television. I had already binged Tiger King, so I was looking for a new obsession; then ESPN started broadcasting KBO games. Hungry for sports, I started recording the games and writing DFS articles for RotoBaller. Well, now that few months of watching games might pay off as one of the KBO's biggest stars is coming to Major League Baseball, and I can help you figure out what that means for your fantasy teams.

On December 26th, the San Diego Padres signed Korean shortstop Ha-Seong Kim to a four-year, $25 million deal. The 25-year-old was the most sought-after international free agent on the market, and perhaps one of the top overall free agents available this offseason. 

On the surface, that makes it a massive win for the Padres, a team that is clearly gunning for a title after trading for both Blake Snell and Yu Darvish this offseason as well. However, the Padres' best player, Fernando Tatis Jr., is also a shortstop, and the team re-signed Jurickson Profar and also has last year's rookie sensation Jake Cronenworth in town, so Kim has seen his ADP around pick 230 in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Cronenworth is going around pick 210 and Profar around 260. Below I'm going to take you through why I think we may have that wrong. 

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!


Playing Time

Let's start off with the tick against Kim that has likely dropped his ADP the most. Most fantasy managers assume Kim is in a timeshare with Cronenworth and Profar, and even projection systems peg him for anywhere between 75-95 games. A player playing only half a team's games isn't really worth a high draft pick. However, we've had a week of Spring Training games now, and we have a little bit to go off of. Thanks to Mike Kurland's awesome Lineup Tracker, we can see that Kim has started five of the Padres' first seven games. Jake Cronenworth and Jurickson Profar have both started four, which slightly favors Kim.

However, if you dig deeper, you see that Profar has only played the outfield so far this spring. That's actionable information since it could mean that Profar is behind both Kim and Cronenworth for infield playing time. In order to get into the lineup, he'd need for one of Wil Myers, Trent Grisham, or Tommy Pham to take a seat. Meanwhile, Ha-Seong Kim has started games at DH, 2B, SS, and 3B. Obviously, the NL will not have a DH this year, but this is a clear indication that the Padres feel comfortable with the rookie all over the infield. Meanwhile, Cronenworth has only started at 1B and 2B. As a result, he has a much more limited path to playing time than both Profar and Kim.

Overall, I think the early spring lineups favor Kim. Yes, Cronenworth owns the platoon split, but the Padres didn't pay Kim that much money for him to sit, so they envision him sharing 2B duties with Cronenworth. When you add in the fact that Kim seems to be the back-up at SS and 3B, that means even more at-bats. Remember, teams are worried about pitchers' innings this year, so most teams will likely carry more pitchers and fewer bench hitters, which means even more at-bats for a versatile fielder like Kim.


Solid Batting Average

With that out of the way, we can look at why to like Kim as a player. To put it bluntly, Kim is a good hitter. This season in the KBO, he had a  .306/.397/.523 triple-slash with 30 home runs, 23 stolen bases, and a 141 wRC+. He added 109 RBI and 111 runs while splitting time between shortstop and third base. 2020 was his sixth season as a full-time starter in the KBO, and he has never had an OPS lower than .832 and has recorded a 140 wRC+ in each of the last two seasons. You don't do that unless you're a legitimately good hitter. 

Now I know some people will just say, "Yeah, but it's the KBO," so I decided to give you some stats to compare to. The chart below shows Kim's stats this season in the KBO, compared to this year's stats of former MLB players who have famously re-invented themselves in the KBO (and also Eric Thames from 2016). 

Now, Kim obviously doesn't have the power of Eric Thames or Mel Rojas Jr., but he's putting up a similarly valuable overall batting line given his increased stolen bases and much lower walk rate. He also vastly outplayed his own teammate Addison Russel and former Phillies' veteran Aaron Altherr. Keep in mind that Kim did this while playing this season at 24-years-old. He can handle the bat. 

Solid Patience and Ratios

Another thing Kim will give the Padres, and your fantasy team, is a solid on-base percentage. He has an approach that is beyond his years, showing good patience yet not being overly picky or passive at the plate. Ever since his debut as a teenager, Kim has reduced his K:BB ratio and finished this season at just 0.91. His strikeout rate was only 10.9%, actually posting a higher walk than strikeout rate, at 12.1%. 

Again, you can make all the league quality arguments that you want, but even if KBO pitchers aren't throwing 95 mph on a regular basis, they absolutely possess a dizzying array of offspeed pitches that can keep young hitters off balance. Addison Russell was a quality major league hitter who had faced good velocity in the MLB and had success (.350 average versus Garrett Cole, .281 versus Carlos Martinez). Yet, Russell struck out more than half the times that Kim did in less than half of the games. Kim's ability to adjust and improve each and every season shows how intelligent he is as a hitter and, perhaps more importantly, how coachable he is. 


Above Average Power

Kim is not a big player at 5’9” and 170 pounds; however, he's put up solid power numbers in the KBO thanks to his big leg kick and solid bat speed. It makes him a good line-drive hitter to all areas of the field and has drawn comparisons to Trea Turner and Dustin Pedroia

Kim has 133 HRs during his career in the KBO and finished with 30 this season, good for ninth in the league. Despite having that solid all-fields line-drive swing, Kim's pull-happy approach helps him to hit the ball with authority to left field. The aggressive torque he gets in his hips, allows him to get his hands inside the ball and load up on power, which is why he's hit .294 in the KBO and knocked extra-base hits on 36.9% of his hits.

This approach may have led to 30 HRs in the KBO, but it's unlikely to do so in MLB. Kim's highest exit velocity in the KBO this season was 105 MPH, which is not particularly hard. While his pull power seems suited to Petco Park, which has been more conducive to right-handed power than left-handed historically, Kim will likely be more of a doubles hitter in the MLB with 20 HR potential. 

Even after his first few games against Major League competition, his coach was optimistic about the way Kim was seeing the ball.


Added Bonus With His Legs

For the cherry on top of his fantasy value, Kim is a plus runner with good speed and base running acumen. If you look at his stats below you can see that, with the exception of a couple of seasons, his 73.6% stolen base success rate is exceptional.

We mentioned the Trea Turner comparison above and while Kim doesn't have Turner's wheels, he has good instincts and the speed to reach 20 SB in a season if the Padres let him run. 


Final Verdict

Kim has the defensive versatility and skills to keep him on the field for the Padres. Despite being primarily a 2B this year, he has quick hands and a plus throwing arm, so he can also move to 3B or fill-in for Tatis at SS on the days when the Padres give other players a rest. 

If people roughly translate the KBO to a level between Double- and Triple-A then Kim's 2020 season would remain pretty impressive for a 24-year-old at those levels. The biggest question for Kim will be how he adjusts to the uptick in fastball velocity. He's shown that he can adjust to pitch sequencing and offspeed pitches, and I believe he has quick enough hands to catch up to high heat and become a well-rounded MLB hitter. 

At the end of the day, I think you're getting a player who will play 110+ games and will hit between .270-.280 with 20 HR and 20 SB upside while getting on base enough to score a lot of runs in a dynamic lineup. That would roughly equate to what we got from Whit Merrifield in 2019, a player who was being drafted between pick 65-80. Kim at around pick 220 is then some real good value. 

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