When the San Diego Padres signed Ha-Seong Kim last off-season, there were some that rolled their eyes at the signing.
Korean players have not enjoyed success at the major league level when it comes to hitting, and the Padres were certainly gambling with the addition to their roster.
Power-hitting first baseman Hee-Seop Choi enjoyed some tenure with the Cubs but never really took off in Chicago. Ji-Man Choi is currently in Tampa and has played well in spurts for the Rays but has yet to play to his ability. Jung Ho Kang (Pittsburgh-2015-19), Hyun Soo Kim (Baltimore and Philadephia 2016-17), Jae-gyun Hwang (San Francisco 2017), and Dae-ho Lee (Seattle 2016) are the most recent Korean-born players to have some residency in the majors, but no success.
Shin Soo-Choo might be the best hitter to come out of Korea, as the left-hander played 1,642 games in the majors and was an All-Star. There are some successful stories, but, in general, Korea has not been a powerhouse when it comes to producing major league hitters.
Inking Ha-Seong Kim to a four-year-$28 million contract came with risk, but the Padres seemed confident that the infielder was different. Kim owned a .866 career OPS in Korea and produced 133 homers in seven seasons, including 30 in 2020, his last season in the KBO. At the time, the 24-year-old was one of the best players in the league and was extremely young.
In his first season with the Padres, there were certainly growing pains as the right-handed hitter struggled with the velocity in the majors. Kim hit .202 last year and produced a .622 OPS and a 73 OPS+ on the season. Those are well below-average numbers, but the Padres saw something they liked from the Korean baseball player. Kim adjusted. He constantly amended his swing and approach at the plate last season and is doing so even more in 2022 with positive results.
Ha-Seong Kim is hitting .257 with a .712 OPS and a 107 OPS+ in 412 at-bats this year. Combined with his above-average defense (1.7 dWAR), the Padres possess a valuable player who is still only 26, and we may have yet seen the best from him with the bat. His 3.9 WAR (according to baseball reference) this season is only behind Manny Machado (5.5 WAR) in terms of overall value to the Padres. Kim has produced a 0.5 WAR higher than Jake Cronenworth (3.4 WAR), who was awarded his second All-Star nomination early this season. That speaks volumes.
The value that Kim brings to the Padres cannot be understated. With Fernando Tatis Jr. missing the whole 2022 season, the Padres needed the infielder to step up at the shortstop position. He has done that and more. In fact, there are whispers the team will be hard-pressed to move Kim off the position even when Tatis returns in May of 2023.
Ha-Seong Kim earned the respect of Manny Machado right away as he joined the Padres. Machado took the Korean infielder under his wing even though there is an obvious language barrier. The two are baseball players, and that was recognized right away as the two started to play on the field together.
Kim regards Machado as the captain of the Padres. That is true. The way Manny Machado plays the game of baseball is contagious. The passion he has for the sport is second to none. There are naysayers around the league, but Manny Machado is undoubtedly the correct role model for Ha-Seong Kim as he further develops in front of our very eyes.