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Hitting big league fastballs, defensive flexibility keys for San Diego-bound Kim Ha-seong

In this file photo from Oct. 7, 2020, Kim Ha-seong of the Kiwoom Heroes celebrates his solo home run against the NC Dinos during the bottom of the fifth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)
In this file photo from Oct. 7, 2020, Kim Ha-seong of the Kiwoom Heroes celebrates his solo home run against the NC Dinos during the bottom of the fifth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Once the South Korean star infielder Kim Ha-seong completes his reported move to the San Diego Padres, he will have to prove his considerable offensive talent and athleticism on defense will translate against hard-throwing big league arms.

MLB.com and other US media reported Monday (local time) that Kim has agreed to a deal with the Padres. Financial terms of the contract, which is pending a physical, weren't immediately available. 

Kim was posted for Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs on Dec. 2 and had 30 days in which to land a deal.

The 25-year-old shortstop for the Kiwoom Heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) also played some third base in 2020. Kim picked the perfect time to have his best offensive season, as he batted .306/.397/.523 with a career-best 30 home runs, 109 RBIs and 111 runs scored. The toolsy player also swiped 23 bags and had had more walks (75) than strikeouts (68) for the first time in his career.

Once the deal is finalized, Kim will be the sixth South Korean hitter to jump from the KBO to MLB, following in the footsteps of KBO All-Stars Kang Jung-ho, Park Byung-ho, Kim Hyun-soo, Lee Dae-ho and Hwang Jae-gyun.

Only Kang made a decent impact, finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year in 2015 for the Pittsburgh Pirates and hitting 21 homers in just 103 games the following year. Off-field legal issues spelled the end of his once-promising career. Park, Lee and Hwang each played just one big league season, and Kim was a part-time play across two seasons for two clubs.

As was the case for these players, the ability to handle major league fastballs will be a key for Kim Ha-seong, who will be seeing heat that he hasn't seen in the KBO.

Park, a two-time 50-homer slugger and former MVP in the KBO, batted only .159 with an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .607 against four-seam fastballs in 2016, his lone major league season for the Minnesota Twins. Fastballs Park saw had an average velocity of 92.9 mph.

Kim Hyun-soo, a former KBO batting champion, had a robust .387 batting average and 1.014 OPS against four-seamers in 2016, his first year with the Baltimore Orioles. But those numbers dipped to .237 and .641 in 2017, even though the average fastball velocity that Kim faced stayed virtually the same (93.4 mph in 2016 and 93.6 mph in 2017). Kim was back in the KBO by 2018.

In 2019, the most recent full major league season when teams each played 162 games, the average fastball velocity reached a record 93.1 mph, according to Statcast. Starting pitchers averaged 92.6 mph.

The average fastball velocity in the KBO this year was 142.3 kph, or 88.4 mph. The fastballs that Kim faced in 2020 came at an average speed of 142.7 kph.

Opponents averaged more than 150 kph (93.2 mph) with their fastballs in only three games against Kim and the Heroes this year. All three such games came against the Doosan Bears, with right-hander Raul Alcantara as the starter.

Alcantara led all KBO starters in average fastball velocity with 151.6 kph in 2020. Kim batted 2-for-15 with two strikeouts against Alcantara.

Overall, when Kim saw fastballs at 150 kph or faster, he only had an OPS of .478, compared to his season total of .921.

If it's any consolation to Kim, big league hitters haven't exactly feasted on high-velo fastballs, either.

In 2019, batters hit .307 and slugged .561 against starters' fastballs coming in below 92 mph. But when starters threw 95 mph or faster, batters hit just .241 with a .396 slugging percentage.

On defense, Kim flashed his athleticism and a strong arm at shortstop throughout his KBO career. He even made some appearances at third base, after the Heroes signed former Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell in the summer.

And Kim will need much of that same athleticism and versatility with the Padres. They're firmly established at shortstop and third base, with Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado. Machado and Tatis finised third and fourth in the National League (NL) MVP voting this year and they aren't going anywhere.

US reports said second baseman Jake Cronenworth, the runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year rce in 2020, could move to outfield to make room for Kim at second. The Korean could also be asked to occasionally spell Tatis and Machado at shortstop and third base. (Yonhap)
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