‘11.5 billion free agent’ Kim Jae-hwan mystery and Lee Seung-yeop’s unwavering faith… What’s wrong?

Kim Jae-hwan (35, Dusan) is the league’s leading home run hitter. He has 228 career home runs in the KBO as of Dec. 12, thanks to the tremendous power that comes from his imposing frame and a swing mechanic that sometimes seems to take your breath away. In 2018, when the ball was flying, he hit 44 homers. It gave the illusion of a hit-and-run game.

He struggled in 2019, but defended his status as a “home run hitter” with 30 home runs in 2020 and 27 in 2021. His treatment in free agency, where big bats are so scarce, was clear. Even Doosan, which had been struggling with a string of free agent departures, couldn’t pass up Kim Jae-hwan, and lured him with a four-year, 11.5 billion won offer ahead of the 2022 season. They decided that there was no alternative.

All athletes lose strength as they age. It’s just a matter of how much less. The 11.5 billion won offer was not possible without the confidence in Kim Jae-hwan. Doosan has been watching Kim Jae-hwan for a long time, so the expectations were high. Even if his power drops a bit, he’s still at the top of the league, and his long-established mechanics won’t break down.

There are two very simple types of hitters who hit home runs. There are players who use their power to crush the ball. There are also players who lack a little bit of power, but still manage to create a good trajectory and send the ball far. Doosan manager Lee Seung-yeop, the “Asian Home Run King” who holds the KBO’s record for most career home runs, is convinced that Kim Jae-hwan has “both,” otherwise he wouldn’t be where he is today.

“He has a lot of power,” Lee says, “but I don’t think a player who has hit more than 200 home runs in his career has hit them with just power. Of course,안전놀이터 he’s technically good, so I think he hit more than 200 while sleeping.” Then, the aging of the home run graph should be normal, but Kim Jae-hwan’s home run power dropped this year.

Even in his down year last year, he hit 23 home runs in 128 games and 517 at-bats. His home run rate was 4.45%, which is not much different from 2020 (4.89%) or 2021 (4.77%), the year before his free agency. This year, however, his rate dropped to a career-low 2.11%. He’s batting just .241 in 53 games this season, but even worse is his on-base percentage (.377).

Lee shakes his head, saying he doesn’t think so. He believes Kim still has plenty of power. He was a home run hitter during his career, so his eyes are more accurate than anyone else’s.

There is evidence in his records that he hasn’t lost much power. This is the average speed of batted balls caught on the Trackman radar, which provides tracking data for all nine KBO teams. Kim’s average bat speed has been among the top in the league every year. Last year, his average batted ball speed was 144.1 kilometers per hour. It’s not uncommon for hitters to say, “The ball isn’t flying. I feel like I’m touching the ball,” and this year’s numbers are the same as last year.

This is the fifth-best average in the league, behind Lee Jung-hoo (Kiwoom), Choi Jeong-jeong (SSG), Noh Si-hwan (Hanwha), and Yang Ji (Doosan). However, while the first four players are among the top offensive producers in the league, Kim Jae-hwan is not. Bat speed is a combination of power and technique, so it’s a mystery.

Kim’s swinging strike rate is 20.4%, his lowest since 2017, and his contact rate is 73.2%, his best since 2018. Based on his numbers alone, he should be performing better than he is, but he’s not. This gives us one hint that things will get better, but it also gives us a negative outlook that Kim is not capitalizing on his strength and good conditions at the moment.

The internal analysis is that the left knee injury was decisive. According to Lee, Jae-hwan was hitting at his peak until spring training and exhibition games this year. Both his batting average and on-base percentage were strong at the start of the season. In his first 15 games, he had a .304 batting average and a .972 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).

However, his knee continued to hurt, and this is where the diagnosis is that his lower body and hitting mechanics completely collapsed. Kim’s average bat speed dropped around the same time that his “knee issues” became more visible.

There was also a spike in the number of batted balls that didn’t travel very far, but were hit with a high launch angle and fell without power. Jae-hwan Kim is a line drive hitter who doesn’t have a high launch angle among home run hitters, and he had one of the lowest pop fly rates in the league. This year, however, his infield popup rate has skyrocketed, and his average launch angle has risen to a point where it’s hard to attribute it to him.

The power is there. It’s all about finding the mechanisms that were disrupted by the knee injury. Lee is a firm believer. “I need to get back to the old Kim Jae-hwan,” Lee emphasized, adding, “It’s a process, and I’m talking to Coach Goto and training every day. I believe it will get better.”

In fact, in the three-game series against KIA last weekend, regardless of the outcome, the quality of his batting improved and more balls were going to the outfield. There were no ground balls, no infield hits. The bat speed was like a bullet. This is a reason to believe Lee’s words that the team will gradually come back to life. The picture of the Doosan batting lineup is not complete without Kim Jae-hwan. It will be interesting to see if he can show his breathtaking swing again.

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