Confidence can be fleeting for athletes, but once they grab hold of it, it can do some wonderful things.
Just ask Kim In-tae, the Doosan Bears outfielder who is finally blossoming into the dangerous hitter that many felt he would become after he was drafted fourth overall a decade ago.
Finally playing on a regular basis at age 27, Kim is making the most of that opportunity. After a career-best three-hit game Tuesday against the NC Dinos, Kim is batting .338 with 26 hits, ranking eighth and sixth in those categories, respectively, in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) this season.
Kim began receiving more consistent playing time in 2021, and he appeared in 133 games and logged 418 plate appearances, both career highs by a mile. He started last season as a backup right fielder but moved into the everyday role in May. He went back to the bench briefly in September before reclaiming the regular job in mid-October.
Though he didn't exactly set the league on fire with a .259/.373/.378 line, Kim said getting to play in so many games in 2021 was a major boost to his confidence.
"The more games I've played, the more confident I've become. I think that's the biggest reason (for my early season success)," Kim said after Tuesday's 8-4 victory at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul.
Kim had all three of his hits against the Dinos' starter Drew Rucinski, who carried the league-low 0.33 ERA into Tuesday's game.
Leading off the game, Kim ambushed Rucinski by driving the first-pitch fastball up the middle for a single. In the second inning, Kim got his bat on a low curveball and dumped it into shallow left field for an RBI hit.
Then in the fourth inning, Kim cashed in two more runs with a hard single to center, off Rucinski's cutter.
That's three hits off three different pitches against one of the KBO's very best.
"Obviously, everyone knows how good Rucinski is. I was prepared for his fastball today," Kim said. "Before the game, I watched a lot of clips from his earlier outings. I paid extra attention."
Asked about Kim's strong start to this season in Tuesday's pregame presser, Doosan manager Kim Tae-hyoung said he hadn't noticed any mechanical improvements from the hitter, but only mentioned some newfound confidence for the outfielder.
Kim In-tae himself said he has adopted a better two-strike approach. Without elaborating, Kim said he has been able to make better contact with two strikes.
"Before I get to two strikes, I try to swing with confidence," Kim said, using that magic "c" word again. "When the count goes to two strikes, I focus on making contact any way I can."
Numbers bear that out. According to the baseball statistics site Statiz, Kim has been making contact on pitches after two strikes 82.8 percent of the time, a career high and more than 10 percentage points better than last season.
Another notable change for Kim has been his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field -- in his case, to the left field.
Kim said he has been receiving a great deal of help from teammate Jose Miguel Fernandez, a left-handed batter like Kim, in that aspect. Fernandez has been one of the KBO's premier contact hitters since arriving here in 2019, and he has also shown a knack for hitting the ball the other way.
Fernandez often faces dramatic shifts from opposing infields, with the third baseman occupying the normal shortstop position and either the shortstop or the second baseman playing back in the outfield grass on the right side. That almost seems counterintuitive, given that 15 of Fernandez's 25 hits went to left. He is batting .469 on balls hit to the opposite field.
Kim has been trying to pick Fernandez's brain about going the other way.
"When I first saw Jose, I was just amazed at his skills. I knew right away he was a great hitter," Kim said. "And he has given me so much advice over the years, and he has been talking to me so much more this year than in the past (about hitting to the opposite field)."
Kim said he has been making conscious efforts to hit the ball to the opposite field during his first round in batting practices.
"Unless you're a home run hitter, there's not a player who wouldn't like to drive the ball to the opposite field," said Kim, who has just 15 career home runs in 721 at-bats. "I am not a slugger myself. And it's always a good sign when I am able to hit the ball the other way."
Kim has sent 38.8 percent of his batted balls to left this season, compared with 32.5 percent last year and 25.4 percent the year before that.
What Kim lacks in power, he makes up for with his on-base skills. He has put up strong on-base percentages in the recent past, and he has a .407 on-base percentage this year, with his discernible eye at the plate aided by improved bat-to-ball skills.
This seems to make Kim an ideal leadoff type. And he has indeed made more appearances at the top of the lineup than any other spot this year.
"Leadoff hitters have to get on base as often as they can to help the team," Kim said. "For me, it doesn't matter where in the lineup I bat. I will always try to make solid contact and reach base." (Yonhap)