In late 2020, shortly after acquiring Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, the San Diego Padres added a Korean star named Ha-Seong Kim.
Kim signed a four-year, $28 million contract which ensured he would be paid whether he played in the big leagues or minors.
A J. Preller and company valued his versatility. However, no one expected him to take over at shortstop. That domain belonged to Fernando Tatis Jr. Fast forward to August 2022, and signing Kim looks like a visionary move.
Without Kim, the Padres would have had no decent alternative at shortstop when they received the news about Tatis Jr.’s 80-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. The only other alternatives at short would be Jake Cronenworth, who plays second base, Manny Machado, who plays third, and bit players Brandon Drury and Mathew Batten. Top prospect C.J. Abrams, had been traded to the Washington Nationals in the deal that brought Juan Soto to San Diego.
When the Padres signed Kim, the front office no doubt assumed that he would be a bit player who could give second baseman Jake Cronenworth, shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., and third baseman Manny Machado welcome days off. Instead he has appeared in 110 games, just behind team leaders Cronenworth at 118, Trent Grisham at 117, and Jurickson Profar at 113.
In his final year in Korea, Kim concentrated on his hitting. He batted cleanup with an average of .396 and 30 home runs. In the United States, his value has been his defense at a crucial position. In DRS, Kim ranks 6th in all of baseball and first in UZR/150 of all shortstops.
Kim gives bench coach Bobby Dickerson and third base coach Matt Williams credit for helping him adjust to the American game and for improving his defense. Since he arrived, Kim has fit in well in the clubhouse despite having to adjust to new teammates and a new language. At the same time, he had to adjust to the high heat packed by pitchers in Major League Baseball. In Korea, pitchers top out around 93 mph. But in the United States, he faces a higher velocity as well as a greater variety.
Earlier in Kim’s tenure, Manny Machado called him “one of the unluckiest guys in the league. I think he should be up there hitting .300. But that’s why I always say baseball is 90 percent luck, 10 percent skill. He’s just been unlucky this year, so the numbers don’t really show.”
Without Kim, the Padres would have to scramble to find a substitute for Tatis Jr. Instead, manager Bob Melvin has a shortstop who has proven his worth, especially on defense. Now in his second year, Kim has also improved his hitting substantially.
From the beginning, his defensive prowess has been obvious, especially in comparison to that of Fernando Tatis Jr. Since joining the Padres, Tatis Jr. has compiled -9 DRS with UZR/150 of -7.1 at short. In center field and right (now the home of Juan Soto), his DRS of 0 indicates he’s not a defensive liability. Kim obviously improves the defense at short with UZR/150 2021 0.7, 2022 9.6, DRS 2021 9, 2022 7. He also leads the team with 11 DRS and in runs prevented at 6.
Kim has also contributed in a number of other aspects of the game:
Games played 5th 109
Runs scored 5th 4
Hits 4th 94
Doubles 4th 23
Triples 1st 3 (tied with Cronenworth)
RBI 6th 44
SB 1st 8
BB 6th 38
BA 3rd .255
OPB 4th 331
SLG 5th .383
OPS 5th .714
OPS+ 4th .107
In his first year, Kim batted .202, .270, .352. This year he’s batting .255/.331/.383. Manager Bob Melvin gives him credit for adjusting and for filling an obvious need. “For a while there, it was getting him in against lefties and let his defense work. But he’s put himself in a position now where he’s basically an everyday player. For him, it’s quality all the time.”
In Korea, Kim regularly checked his offensive numbers “but here, I try not to because it’s stressing me more. So I just play the game, not think about those numbers too much.” That makes sense when a hitter performs 30 percent below league average, as Kim did in his first year with the Padres. But it’s safe for him to take a peek at this point in the season. Kim would discover that he’s hitting .289 with runners in scoring position, which has been one of the Padres’ weaknesses this entire year, and that he’s improved in every offensive category.
Even more important, though, Manny Machado calls Kim the “heartbeat” of the Padres:
“He gets along with everybody; he loves everybody and brings that energy every single day. Whenever he steps on the field, he’s playing that good defense; he’s handled the at-bats this year. He’s proving it.”
The news of Tatis Jr.’s suspension shocked and rattled everyone from the front office to the youngest fan. Adding Tatis Jr. to a roster that has improved with the addition of Juan Soto and Josh Bell would have dramatically increased the Padre’s chances of reaching the postseason beyond the Wild Card.
Without Kim, the Padres would have very few options at one of the most important defensive positions. The team’s top shortstop prospect, Jackson Merrill, currently resides in A ball with an ETA of 2025. If Machado moved to short, who would play the hot corner?
The signing of Ha-Seong Kim in late 2020 was not a highly touted move. However, it’s turned out to be one of the best decisions that the Padre’s front office has made in the last two years.