After a relatively disappointing first season in the brown and gold last year, it’s fair to say that the San Diego Padres didn’t know what to expect from Ha-Seong Kim in 2022. Kim slashed .202/.270/.622 with a 70 wRC+ over 267 at-bats last year, punching out 71 times and walking only 22. Due to his struggles, Kim was relegated to a back-of-the-bench role as the season went on.
With that said, the team and fans remained cautiously optimistic about Kim as the 2022 campaign approached. He had a full year living and traveling throughout the United States under his belt – something that may honestly have been the biggest adjustment he needed to make during his transition over. Kim also became more familiar with MLB pitching and velocity in particular, as the arms he’s now seeing on a night-to-night basis own more consistent potency than what he was accustomed to in Korea.
Though there’s still been a few ups-and-downs, it’s undeniable to say that Kim hasn’t been a much improved version of himself this year – a crucial development for this team given the loss of Fernando Tatis Jr. He’s no superstar by any means, but Kim has turned himself into a serviceable everyday player for a team that’s expecting to make a run into the postseason.
Let’s start at the plate, where the 26-year-old has obviously enhanced his value as a whole. For starters, Kim cut his strikeout rate from 23.8% last year to 18.4% right now, walking at a higher clip (9.4%) as well. With 348 at-bats under his belt, a strikeout rate under 20-percent is no joke and certainly suggests that Kim has grown increasingly comfortable with MLB pitching. From 2016 to 2020, Kim never posted a strikeout rate above 14.5% in the KBO and it appears that he’s slowly starting to showcase those bat-to-ball skills that he’d been coveted for.
Kim’s ability and comfort with velocity at this level has likely contributed to his improved offensive performance. He hit .155 against fastballs last year with a .251 wOBA, improving those numbers to .260 and .372, respectively, this season. He’s way more comfortable covering the zone and handling up-and-in heat now than ever before and that’s evident when you turn the TV on to watch him play.
Handling fastballs has also been part of the reason why Kim’s been playing better over the last five weeks or so. Since July 1st, a span that covers 117 plate appearances, Kim is slashing .296/.342/.435 with a 120 wRC+. He’s legitimately been an asset for a Padres’ offense that was struggling at times, though is much improved after the deadline additions they made.
Perhaps Kim’s biggest asset to the Padres is his glove, both in talent and versatility. He’s been one of the best defenders in all of baseball this season, providing more defensive value at shortstop than Tatis Jr. did last season and giving San Diego a staple there while their cornerstone star is sidelined. His ability to shift around the diamond, whether it be second or third base, is something that every single front office across the league would covet.
What’s holding Kim back from truly being a consistent threat at the plate is his consistent desire to pull and elevate the baseball. In Korea, Kim was routinely blasting balls over the fence, homering 30 times in his final season. Since then, Kim’s only homered 14 times and his relatively low exit velocity numbers suggest he’s never going to be a slugger. When you watch Kim swing, he generates plenty of torque and rotational drive for power, but it’s a steep attack angle engineered to lift the ball to the pull-side.
At his best, Kim is a flat-path line drive hitter that backspins doubles into the gaps and provides value at the plate in that regard. Making that adjustment and understanding he doesn’t have the juice, especially at Petco Park, to hit 20+ home runs every single year could help Kim at the plate.
With Fernando Tatis Jr. set to return relatively soon, the question is this: What do the Padres do with Kim?
Thankfully, they have options.
Though he may not personally want to, the Padres have already shown they’re more than comfortable playing Tatis in the outfield, where they feel he can be an asset to them. Both Wil Myers and Trent Grisham haven’t performed at all both offensively and defensively this season, opening up an avenue for an instant all-around upgrade should Tatis slot there. Tatis is no slouch defensively at shortstop, and he is certainly capable of making highlight reel plays that others aren’t, but moving him to the outfield while keeping Kim at shortstop makes the Padres a better team right now.
Another option could be shifting Kim around the infield, though that becomes a bit trickier. Even though Cronenworth has regressed in some categories offensively, he’s still running a near identical wRC+ (111) to last year (116) and his wOBA (.325) isn’t much different to his 2021 mark (.341) either. Cronenworth is also a left-handed hitter, which means he’d be on the strong side of any platoon, and he’s an excellent defender on top of all that. Dropping him in the lineup should certainly be an option, but moving him to the bench doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
Adding Brandon Drury to the mix also complicates things, but in a good way. Drury is having an excellent season, slashing .268/.329/.515 on the year with 22 home runs, 66 RBIs, and a 128 wRC+. Drury’s versatility defensively mirrors Kim, even if he’s not the caliber of defender, as he’s capable of shifting around the diamond and playing every spot in a pinch. His bat is necessary in this lineup right now, so don’t expect Drury to miss at-bats anytime soon, barring injury.
Bottom line, the Padres are going to have to be creative with how they deploy their lineups once Tatis returns. They’re at their best with him in center field, as they’ll improve on both sides of the ball in all aspects. A team that fields Profar, Tatis, and Soto in the outfield with Machado, Kim, Cronenworth, and Drury on the infield is much better defensively than one that doesn’t. Should they choose to put their 23-year-old star at shortstop, however, things may look different for Kim and his playing time down the road. It’s a good problem to have and Kim’s improvements in all aspects of his game make a talented team much deeper.