On a team full of high-priced stars, a diminutive middle infielder with largely pedestrian offensive numbers might be the most indispensable player. It’s time we talked about Ha-Seong Kim.
When the San Diego Padres signed Kim out of the KBO in December of 2020, the deal barely caused a blip on the offseason radar. The Friars were in the middle of a stunning stretch in which they acquired Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove and locked Fernando Tatis Jr. up with a 14-year extension. The addition of a presumed utility guy to a low-cost, four-year contract didn’t seem like a big deal. Two-and-a-half seasons later it wouldn’t be crazy to call Kim the most underrated player in Major League Baseball.
Kim played for the Kiwoom Heroes in Korea from 2014 through 2020. He was known for his stellar defense and some pretty amazing bat flips. He won three KBO Golden Glove Awards as a shortstop from 2018-2020, and arrived in MLB as a 25-year-old with some offensive upside but at worst, he’d be a defensive replacement. He’s improved tremendously since landing in San Diego.
Kim had an up-and-down rookie season. His defense was stellar but he was lost at the plate, particularly against velocity. With Tatis missing the 2022 season, Kim filled in at shortstop and was excellent, being named a Gold Glove finalist. While his bat lagged behind his defense, he did up his OPS to .708 from .622 as a rookie. He hit nearly 50 points higher and his on-base percentage jumped from .270 to .325. Kim’s versatility was also key as he played short, third and second base and was excellent at each. For the season he finished tied for third in defensive runs saved with 29. He’s taken the next step across the board in 2023.
So far this season, Kim is slashing .257/.344/.411 for a .756 OPS. He has 10 home runs, 31 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 18 attempts. His wRC+ is 112, up from 105 last season and 70 as a rookie. The improvement is clear, even if it has been incremental.
It’s fair not to be blown away by his offensive numbers, but he is getting better every season. While his offense has progressed, 27-year-old’s biggest contributions have come on the other side of the diamond. With San Diego’s addition of Xander Bogaerts, Kim has moved to second base. I have no hesitation in saying he has become the best defensive player in baseball.
Kim currently leads MLB in DRS with 17, one head of Tatis (16). The closest infield is Wander Franco with 13. In fact, Kim’s defense is so strong that even with those largely average offensive statistics, he currently ranks fifth in the majors in WAR (3.9). Read that again. Ha-Seong Kim is the fifth-most valuable player in baseball according Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculations. Let that sink in.
In that metric, Kim is tied with Tatis and Mookie Betts and leads Corbin Carroll (3.8) and Luis Arraez (3.7). That’s how good he’s been. In a world without the shift, rangy, versatile defenders who can make plays all over the infield provide a ton of value.
This is the kind of stuff Kim is doing on a regular basis:
Kim has mostly played second base this season, but he’s filled in at shortstop and third base as well. He’s been phenomenal no matter where manager Bob Melvin has put him. There should be no question that he’s the current front-runner for the National League’s Platinum Glove award.
His fWAR — which doesn’t weigh defense as heavily — of 2.8 ranks 11th in the national league, tied with Christian Yelich, Paul Goldschmidt, Will Smith and Arraez. So even with defense devalued a bit, he’s been one of the top 15 players in the National League.
While the Padres have struggled to find consistency and each of their big name stars has taken turns struggling, Kim has been a constant. He’s the team’s spark plug and has come up with huge hits, timely baserunning decisions and key defensive plays all season.
If you just looked at his counting stats, you’d dismiss Kim’s impact out of hand. But the value numbers don’t lie, he’s a wildly important player. Many have overlooked his contributions which is why, despite the outstanding season he’s having, he was passed over for the All-Star Game. That was a mistake.
Kim is currently baseball’s most underrated player. It’s past time for him to start getting noticed.