The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) has produced Korean-born MLB stars Hyun-Jin Ryu and Shin-Soo Choo, while also acting as an oasis for MLB prospects like Darin Ruf who couldn’t live up to the hype in an attempt to revitalize their careers. In a league flush with talent, who will make up the next wave of stars from Korea?
Making the Transition
It would be egregious to gloss over the most recent prized talent to come over from Korea: Ha-Seong Kim. Many teams coveted Kim’s talent last offseason, including the Blue Jay and Red Sox. In the end, the 25 year-old signed a four year, $28 million dollar deal with the San Diego Padres. It was the biggest contract given to a player from the KBO since Hyun-Jin Ryu received six years and $36 million dollars from the Dodgers in 2012, which shows the magnitude of Kim’s perceived talent prior to coming to the US.
With all the expectations and excitement around the young Korean coming into the 2021 season, delivering on all the hype was always going to be a challenge, but Kim has been a big disappointment thus far, especially at the plate. In 266 plate appearances, he has a 68 wRC+, which means he is 32% worse than average at the plate. The level of pitching in Korea is much lower than in the states and many evaluators compare it to Double-A, explaining why players from the KBO often struggle out of the gate against the best pitchers in the world.
While Kim’s lacking power has held him back thus far, his defensive prowess has set him apart and is the main reason he has not been demoted to Triple-A. The Padres seriously value his skills on defense and are happy to trade offense for run saving plays, of which Kim has made plenty.
Over his 509.1 innings between second, third and short, Kim ranks third in all of baseball with 17 defensive runs saved only trailing Michael A. Taylor and Jacob Stallings. If Baseball Savant’s outs above average is more your flavor, well he’s been great in that respect as well, accounting for three outs above average. While the current version of Kim resembles Nick Ahmed, a player that still has value, a small boost in offensive success, say in the 80-90 wRC+ range, would make him an increasingly valuable asset on a playoff team.
The KBO’s Brightest Star
Meet Baek-Ho Kang, a 22-year-old first basemen from Seoul, South Korea, who has taken the KBO by storm and currently leads the league in WAR. Shortly after graduating high school, he debuted at the age of 18 with the KT Wiz, hitting 29 home runs en route to Rookie of the Year honors. The KBO has since deadened the baseball a bit, so Kang has not displayed the power he did as an 18 year-old, but has compensated by hitting more doubles and striking out at a career low rate, leading to a 1.062 OPS, which ranks second in the KBO.
Kang is still a long ways away from entering the free agent market. He will not become eligible to sign with an MLB team until the conclusion of the 2024-2025 season, which by then he will 25 years old. Although many MLB franchises would be lining up to sign Kang this offseason, more development of his power profile and defensive skills are needed before he can expect to succeed at the major league level.
He has a complex swing with loads of movement that carries concerns of swing and miss against superior pitching opponents, but players like Shohei Ohtani have proven that selling out for power can achieve results. Look for Baek-ho to continue developing and with time, he could break Hyun Jin Ryu’s record for largest KBO signing ever.
Kiwoom’s Next Prodigy
The Kiwoom Heroes, who reside in the capital city, Seoul, are known for developing MLB talent. Jung-Ho Kang, Byung-Ho Park, and Ha-Seong Kim all evolved under Kiwoom’s system, paving the way for Jung-Hoo Lee to be the next Hero to make the leap to the majors.
The 23-year-old right fielder has improved in each of the five seasons that he’s been with the Heroes, posting a career high 152 wRC+ this season. Lee possesses an elite approach, striking out only 6%, while walking double that figure. Lee had a major power breakout in 2020, hitting 15 home runs and setting a record for doubles in a season with 49. His power has regressed this season, only hitting three bombs through 83 games, but the gap to gap power remains as he leads the KBO in doubles.
With no wasted movement in his swing, it’s easy to see why Lee strikes out at such a low clip. He is eligible to be posted by the Kiwoom Heroes in 2024, which will give Lee plenty of time to gain strength and increase his power numbers. His defensive grades are currently average to below average in right field, so improving power output will be a must if Lee wants to secure a large contract following the 2024 season.