With a recent history of injuries behind him, Nexen Heroes' first baseman Chae Tae-in is finally doing the things that many thought he was capable of all along.
Through Tuesday's games, the 34-year-old veteran in the Korea Baseball Organization is leading the club with a .387/.433/.613 slash line, along with two homers and nine RBIs in 18 games. He's fifth in the KBO in batting average, and is also inside the top 10 in both on-base and slugging percentages.
In this file photo taken on April 11, 2017, Chae Tae-in of the Nexen Heroes watches his solo home run against the KT Wiz in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Chae was signed by the Boston Red Sox out of high school as a pitcher in 2001. He suffered a shoulder injury and never actually played for their organization, and ended up with the KBO's Samsung Lions in 2007 as a hitter.
Chae was dubbed the "baseball genius" by fans for his seamless transition from the mound to the batter's box. But held back by assorted injuries, Chae, while putting up decent numbers across the board, never did have a defining season with the Lions in nine years there. He batted .381 in 2013 but did so only in 299 at-bats in 94 games. Only twice did he miss fewer than 20 games in a season with the Lions -- 2009 and 2014.
He joined the Heroes in a trade before the last season, and though he matched his career-high with 124 games played, Chae failed to hit .300 for the first time in four years.
Chae has only played in 18 games so far this season, but it has been a much different story. He will never be a 30-homer slugger -- his personal high is 17 from 2009 -- but Chae is driving the ball with some authority.
On the surface, this all may be due to improved health, particularly his wonky back and knees. But Chae himself said it's been more mental than anything else.
"I am playing well this season because I've got a new mindset," he said Tuesday before facing the Doosan Bears at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. "I am playing with more confidence that I won't hurt myself no matter what I do."
Chae recalled that he was too tentative and passive on the field last year. And Lee Ji-poong, the Heroes' physical trainer, didn't just work with Chae on strengthening his knees; Lee also instilled in Chae some much-needed confidence and continued to tell the player that he could finally enjoy a healthy season.
"It's so great to be playing without pain," Chae said. "Last year, I wasn't hurting that badly, but I couldn't really go all-out on the field because I was afraid of getting injured again. But I tried to change my attitude and follow the trainer's orders this year. I've also gotten better on defense."
Chae said his primary goal for the season is to avoid injuries, adding that numbers will then take care of themselves.
"We've only played about 20 games so far," Chae said. "I want to be able to maintain a high batting average after more than 200 plate appearances." (Yonhap)