By Troy Stangarone
When most fans of Major League Baseball (MLB) think of players from the Pacific Rim, players imported from Japan’s professional league tend to come to mind. Whether it be Ichiro or for a period Dice “K” Matsuzaka, there have been a string of high profile players coming from Japan to the United States. That perception may be about to change. While more Japanese professionals have played in the major leagues, players from Korea are increasingly making their mark in MLB as well.
Because of the thriving professional leagues in Korea and Japan, a posting system remains in place that limits the flow of talent to the majors from Korea and Japan relative to what the overall level of talent in either country would warrant than in comparison from Latin America. This has begun to change somewhat in the last decade or so thanks in part to the success of players such as Ichiro and more recently to Koreans such as Choo Shin-soo with the Rangers and Ryu Hyun-jin with the Dodgers.
In the case of Korea, this all began with Park Chan-ho. Park became the first Korean to play in the major leagues when he briefly made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994, but would go on to become a star once he had established himself in the majors by 1996. Park’s success helped to pave the way for other players from Korea to come to the United States, with a peak of 8 Koreans playing in the majors in 2005.
While the number of Koreans playing in MLB tailed off after 2005, the 2016 season has seen a resurgence in Koreans playing in the majors. Five Korean-born players have already made their debut this season and the number of Korean-born players on MLB rosters is again at an all-time high of eight. However, if prospects such as Lee Hak-ju of the San Francisco Giants make their debut this season, 2016 could represent a high-water mark for Koreans in Major League Baseball.
The following is a brief look at the five Korean-born players to have made their debut this season in the majors:
The Minnesota Twins signed Park Byung-ho as a free agent after he was posted for transfer by his current team in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), the Nexen Heroes. Park brings tremendous power to the Twins lineup, as demonstrated by his stellar numbers in the last few seasons in the KBO. Since becoming a full-time player in the KBO in 2012, Park has averaged 43 home runs a season, including the last two seasons when he hit 52 and 53 home runs respectively. His power should show in the majors and through his first 12 games he has 4 home runs, but the question with Park will be if he can make sufficient contact. In his last two season in Korea he struck out 30 percent of the time, but still managed to hit over .300. In the early going this year the strikeouts are comparable to Korea, but his average is only .233 in the early going. If Park can find a way to hit in the .260-.270 range he could be a true force in MLB.
Nicknamed “The Final Boss,” Oh Seung-hwan spent eleven seasons in the KBO and the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization being just that. Dominating as a closer in both leagues, his combined stats from Korea and Japan include a 1.81 ERA, 357 saves and a 772/149 K/BB ratio over 646 innings. Signed by the St. Louis Cardinals over the winter, he has been just as dominating in the early going in MLB. Oh goes after batters with a fastball in the low 90s, as well as change up, but his best pitch is a nearly unhittable slider. Over 7 games and 7.2 innings this season, Oh has yet to give up a run, has struck out 13, and picked up a win. Hitters are only batting .100 off him on balls in play. While St. Louis wasn’t looking to use Oh as a replacement for closer Trever Rosenthal, he instead adds a lockdown reliever to St. Louis’ bullpen that can help them extend the game and provide insurance at closer should Rosenthal suffer an injury or ineffectiveness.
The Baltimore Orioles signed Kim Hyun-soo to be their starting left fielder this offseason. Things have not worked out to plan. After having a poor spring, he lost the starting left field job to Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard. The Orioles hoped to convince Kim go to the minor leagues to work on his swing, but ultimately kept him on the major league roster after he refused a minor league assignment. In limited play over 6 at bats, Kim has hit .500 and had begun to show improvement towards the end of spring training. If Kim can round his swing into shape and grab more playing time, he has the potential to be an above average hitter. In the KBO he was a .300 hitter with 20 home run power and a good batting eye. The power may not completely translate to MLB, but the rest of the package has the potential to do so.
Much like Oh Seung-hwan, Lee Dae-ho is a more experienced player who has spent time both in the KBO and Japan. In his last four seasons in Japan, Lee has shown good power and a good average, while demonstrating a good eye with a high level of walks and an ability to avoid strikeouts. Lee’s power isn’t quite as prodigious as Park Byung-ho’s, but given playing time he should be able to hit for power. Though, playing time might be his problem. He’s the short-end of a first base platoon with Adam Lind and the backup DH to Nelson Cruz. Interestingly, Nelson Cruz might be the MLB player Lee is most comparable to. In the early going, Lee has 2 home runs and is hitting .250 on the year.
Originally signed by the Seattle Mariners as a free agent as a teenager, Choi Ji-man played in the U.S. minor league system rather than in Korea or Japan. Taken this winter as a Rule 5 pick by the Los Angeles Angels, Choi has always had a good feel for hitting and the plate discipline needed to be successful. However, despite good bat speed he’s never quite produced the power that was expected. After seeing an increase in his power in 2013, he was suspended for using performance enhancing drugs and the previous spike in power has yet to return. As a Rule 5 pick, he’s seen only 6 at bats this year with the Angels and is likely to only get sporadic playing time.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Drew Garaet’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.