By Troy Stangarone
Baseball is one of the most popular sports in South Korea, and in recent years there have been an increasing number of Korean players in Major League Baseball (MLB). With the regular season concluded and the Rockies eliminated from the playoffs, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Dodgers is the only Korean player still hoping to extend his 2018 season in the playoffs. This past season saw solid performances from Ryu and Choo Shin-soo, as well as a bounce back season from Oh Seung-hwan. But the biggest story for Koreans in MLB is the potential arrival of Choi Ji-man.
Choi has always had good plate discipline and a good swing, but coming up through the minors he was expected to hit more for average than power. His development was also likely slowed from a 50 game suspension for a using performance enhancing substance in 2014 and a broken leg in 2015 that caused him to miss most of the season. Since then he’s bounced around. In 2015, he signed as a minor league free agent with the Orioles, but then was drafted by the Angeles in that off season’s Rule 5 draft. After struggling in his MLB debut with the Angels, he spent time with the Yankees and Brewers before being traded last season to the Tampa Bay Rays. After the trade, Choi finally received consistent at bats in the second half of the season and put up solid numbers, including strong power numbers as he slugged over .500 in 221 at bats. He’ll enter the 2019 season at the peak age of 27, but Tampa is also stocked with a strong farm system, meaning that if Choi wants to establish himself as a regular player in the majors he’ll need to have strong spring and start to the season.
Despite tailing off in the second half of the season after a scorching first half, Choo produced a second solid season after his 2016 was largely lost to injury. Perhaps more significantly, Choo also passed Hideki Matsui to become the all-time leader in home runs in MLB among players born in Asia.
In his rookie season with the Cardinals in 2016, The Final Boss seized control of the Cardinals closer role, but he struggled in 2017 losing his role as closer in St. Louis and ultimately signing in the off season with the Toronto Blue Jays. After a solid first half with the Blue Jays, Oh was traded to Colorado before the trade deadline as the Rockies sought to solidify their bullpen for a playoff push.
Ryu had a strong season for the Dodgers, who are once again World Series contenders, in his second season coming off of a shoulder injury. However, his 2018 season was marred by a torn groin muscle that cost Ryu three months of his season.
After establishing himself with two strong seasons in Pittsburgh, Kang missed the 2017 season and most of the 2018 season after he was denied a work visa in the United States in the aftermath of his third DUI conviction in South Korea. Kang eventually was granted a work visa this season, but only was able to work his way back in time to play three games in September as the season was coming to a close. As Kang continues to make his comeback next season, he’ll likely have to compete with the Pirates new third baseman Colin Moran for playing time.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from arctic_whirlwind’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. Player stat images created by Juni Kim, KEI’s Program Manager and Executive Assistant.