Jung Hoo Lee is the Best Free Agent Flying Under the Radar

A young center fielder with tons of talent and an already illustrious KBO career under his belt, Jung-Hoo Lee may be the unheralded gem of this free agent class.

TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 12: Jung Hoo Lee #51 of Korea flies out in the fourth inning during the World Baseball Classic Pool B game between Czech Republic and Korea at Tokyo Dome on March 12, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

When it comes to making contact, no MLB free agent is more proficient than Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee. That may seem exaggerative, considering the most coveted free agents in this year’s class have enjoyed varying amounts of big league success while whoever signs Lee will likely be paying upwards of $50 million to find out what he even looks like in the big leagues, but his feel to hit is that impressive.

A phenom who debuted with the Nexen Heroes of the KBO at the age of 18, Lee was not only the first player to make the leap straight from high school to playing every game in the KBO season, but he also took home the league’s Rookie of the Year award in 2017.

Lee is nicknamed “Grandson of the Wind” in homage to his legendary father Jong-Beom Lee, whose speed helped him an MVP award in 1994, make 13 KBO All-Star Games, and earn the nickname “Son of the Wind”.

In his seven KBO seasons (884 games), the younger Lee has mashed to a .340/.407/.491 clip while securing five Golden Gloves and walking more than he struck out. He launched a career-high 23 homers in 2022 and was enjoying a strong 2023 before a fractured ankle cut his season short in July.

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Swing Mechanics

Lee’s pre-swing moves are designed for him to see the ball as early as possible. He gets to his launch position before the pitcher breaks his hands, storing his energy in his back side with almost no weight on his front foot as he holds his gather.

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Seeing the ball early is an advantage for Lee, but the reason why you don’t see more players do this is simply because it is extremely difficult for a hitter to control his body the way that he does. It’s common for hitters to leak forward prematurely from their launch position with a drift forward, which creates a power leak and can affect the bat path. The earlier a hitter coils into their backside, the more difficult it is to actually hold it.

Short and quick to the ball with a swing that stays in the zone for a long time, Lee has a great feel for the barrel, getting to pitches in different locations…or really any location.

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It’s reminiscent of Luis Arraez in the way Lee can spoil tough two-strike pitches or get just enough of a pitcher’s pitch to shoot it through the infield. His hands work so well in tandem with his athleticism that he can adjust even when he is fooled while still being quick enough to turn around hard stuff inside.

Two Strike Excellence

At the World Baseball Classic, Lee mentioned that he wanted to “lead the league in batting average” once he makes the move stateside; a lofty goal that is attainable thanks to his rare ability to hit with two strikes.

Luis Arraez has led the league in this category for two straight seasons and, without coincidence, has won back-to-back batting titles. Since the start of the 2022 season, Arraez has hit a league-best .292 in two-strike counts.

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While the pitching is not quite as stiff, Jung Hoo Lee has been equally impressive over his last two seasons, hitting .297/.339/.450 with two strikes since the start of the 2022 season. A patient hitter early in the count–a rarity with elite bat-to-ball guys–Lee’s swing rate jumps from around 40% to 66% when down to his last strike.

A jump in swing rate with two strikes is par for the course with hitters, but so is a lower batting average and increased whiff. The average MLB hitter has posted a batting average comfortably below the Mendoza line with two strikes over the last several seasons.

From a contact standpoint, Lee might somehow be even more impressive with two strikes considering how marginal the difference in whiff is. If a two-strike offering is in the zone, it was almost guaranteed that the pitcher will have to throw another pitch.

Including World Baseball Classic games, Lee has struck out just 57 times in his last 245 games (5% K-rate). Of those 57 strikeouts, 22 of them were looking, but nine of the called third strikes were outside of the zone. Of his 35 strikeouts swinging, only seven came on pitches in the strike zone.

With Two StrikesSwing%: 66%Z-Contact: 97%SwStr%: 3.9%Slugging%: .450
All CountsSwing%: 41%Z-Contact: 97%SWStr%: 3.2%Slugging%: .530
Jung Hoo Lee since the start of 2022 (245 games) *Includes World Baseball Classic

Essentially, a pitcher’s best bet to punch out Lee is to get him to chase outside of the zone, but that generally won’t be enough, as his contact rate on pitches outside of the zone is a ridiculous 83%. While that figure will likely take some sort of hit against MLB pitching, it’s worth noting that Luis Arraez (87% O-Contact) was the only player in MLB with an out-of-zone contact rate above 77%.

How Much Impact Is There?

Lee should have little trouble putting the ball in play against more challenging competition stateside, the question is what the batted ball profile will look like and whether he can translate his high frequency of balls in play into hits and production.

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Comparing Lee’s batted ball data to MLB hitters in the “contact-oriented” bucket is somewhat apples-to-oranges, but it is a good reference point. Metrics like zone-contact and HR/FB rate could take some sort of a hit against better competition–more on that to come–but a successful MLB version of Lee would likely share plenty of commonalities with the 2023 seasons of the players in the chart below.

Jung Hoo LeeZ-Con: 97%Avg EV: 8990% EV: 102LD%: 25%LA: 12°
Luis ArraezZ-Con: 94%Avg EV: 88.390% EV: 99LD%: 31%LA: 11.5°
Brendan Donovan
Z-CON: 90.4%Avg EV: 87.690% EV: 101.5LD%: 24%LA: 6°
Alex BregmanZ-CON: 91.3%AVG EV: 88.690% EV: 101.7LD%: 25%LA: 17.6°
Nico HoernerZ-Con: 93%Avg EV: 86.690% EV: 101LD%: 25%LA: 10.6°
Steven Kwan
Z-Con: 93.7%Avg EV: 8690% EV: 98.4LD%: 28%LA: 11.8°
Alex VerdugoZ-Con: 91.7%Avg EV: 8990% EV: 103.5LD%: 27%LA: 8.4°
MLB AverageZ-Con: 82%AVG EV: 8990th% EV: 103.6LD%: 25%LA: 12.6°
*Jung Hoo Lee’s data includes 2022 season and WBC (245 games)

Of the group of six, Lee sits closer to Alex Verdugo and Alex Bregman in the exit velocity department. Of course, it’s virtually impossible that Lee maintains anything close to the zone contact figure he has posted in the KBO. In fact, the highest zone contact rate since we started tracking this stuff in 2015 is 95.9% by Daniel Murphy that same year.

Assuming Lee dips towards the low 90% range in zone contact, he would still be roughly 10% above league average and alongside the names on the chart above. What may separate Lee is the fact that his raw power is a tick better than most 90% or better zone contact guys not named Jose Ramírez or Mookie Betts.

While it is unlikely that Lee will hit for as much power as even 2023 Alex Bregman (25 homers), he has flashed the ability to squeeze out every drop of his fringy exit velocities, much like the Astros star. Bregman’s swing is generally more geared for lift in all counts, with an average launch angle of nearly 18 degrees, while Lee’s hovers around 12 degrees.

Bregman’s blend of high contact rates and loft is rare, but when Lee is ahead in the count, he hunts for a pitch he can lift and was especially successful in doing so in 2022, when he hit a career-high 23 home runs. When in advantage counts, Lee’s average launch angle jumped to 18 degrees, right on par with Bregman’s average.

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The fact that Lee only shares the launch angle commonalities with Bregman when ahead in the count is already limiting to his power potential, but that it is an important reminder that he will not always look spray singles. Considering the fact that Lee is unlikely to have Crawford Box dimensions to his pull side and much of his value comes from his contact skills, effectively leveraging his hitter’s counts is really all he needs to do to provide enough impact.

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Most hitters see their swing rates jump a bit when ahead in the count, while Lee actually becomes more selective, happily taking a strike if it is not a pitch he can catch a bit further out in front and drive in the air. His ability to hit with two strikes makes him far from concerned about a deep count.

How Does KBO Production Translate?

The big question, of course, is whether he can oscillate between hunter and bat-to-ball savant against MLB stuff. It’s much easier to attack a low 90s fastball in an advantage count than a mid 90s heater with ride or an off-speed pitch. After all, fastball usage in hitter’s counts is at an all-time low.

According to a Baseball America scout survey, most evaluators peg the KBO level of competition as something between Double-A and Triple-A. Much like a top prospect, it’s important to acknowledge the probability of an acclimation process to the best league in the world.

Though different types of hitters, with Lee likely the better of the two, Ha-Seong Kim is a helpful reference point in regards to what the acclimation process from the KBO could look like with Lee also set to debut at 25 years old.

Lee shouldn’t be as slow out of the gate as Kim was (71 wRC+), but it wouldn’t be surprising if Lee feels his way through his first year a bit. Kim saw his wRC+ jump to 106 in 2022 before upping it to 112 last season with career-best totals in virtually every category.

It wouldn’t be surprising for Lee’s first season to look something like Kim’s second season, then he takes off on a similarly exciting trajectory. That said, it wouldn’t be shocking if a hitter with a feel for the barrel that you can’t teach could make a more seamless transition than most.

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From an underlying data standpoint, Kim’s contact rates in 2023 were a little under 5% below his final season in the KBO while actually maintaining his low 20’s chase rate. Kim is just one example, so it would be silly to draw any major conclusions from his precedent other than the fact that Major League Baseball is a different beast and talented players can make big leaps between seasons.

Speed and Defense

They don’t call him “Grandson of the Wind” for nothing…Lee can motor like his father. He hasn’t quite translated his plus speed into the same volume of stolen bases as his father, but stolen bases are generally harder to come by in the KBO, with only a few players exceeding 30 bags annually; in 884 games, he has swiped 69 bases.

The wheels really show up for Lee in center field, where he is capable of covering plenty of ground. When you blend his plus speed with good jumps and instincts in the outfield, it’s easy to understand why Lee is so impactful with the leather.

In addition to his solid range and comfortable routes, Lee’s arm is well above average, playing well out of right field when he last saw action out there in 2020. Since the start of the 2020 season (436 games), he has racked up 28 outfield assists.

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Long-Term Outlook

With such an impressive track record already, it’s easy to forget that Lee is just 25 years old and far from a finished product. Up until his injury-shortened 2023, he saw his OPS climb in three consecutive years, posting a .996 OPS in 2022 on his way to the KBO MVP award.

Generally speaking, a contact-oriented center fielder who plays great defense has a higher floor than most profiles, as it is a bit easier for such players to help their team. Considering the blend of Lee both getting acclimated to MLB as well as still improving as a player no matter what league he is in, there’s a good chance that we may not see the best of Lee until his second or third season, much like any top prospect.

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Lee is being posted at a fantastic time when it comes to his market. This year’s free agent class leaves plenty to be desired up the middle with an unproven Lee very easily checking in as the second best center field option on the open market behind Cody Bellinger, and possibly the only other free agent at the position who will receive a multi-year deal.

Last season, the only center fielders who compiled an fWAR above 4.9 were Luis Robert Jr. and Julio Rodriguez. The average OPS at the position since the start of the 2022 season is just barely above .700.

Essentially, if Lee is close to a league-average hitter in his first season and the defense translates the way many expect it to, he should be an upgrade in center field for most teams in baseball. The exciting part about the future of the Korean star is the fact that he can be plenty more than that, especially in the right ballpark.