Where EAST meets the Northwest
KBO TO MLB. Byung-ho Park of the Minnesota Twins takes a lead off second base
during a spring-training game against the Boston Red Sox. (AP Photo/Tony
Left fielder Hyun-soo Kim of the Baltimore Orioles chases after a fly ball
during a pre-season game against the Minnesota Twins. Both games were played in
Fort Myers, Florida. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Jung-ho Kang of the Pittsburgh Pirates rounds third base on his way to
scoring against the Milwaukee Brewers in the sixth inning of a baseball game
last season. Kang scored on a single by Chris Stewart. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich,
From The Asian Reporter, V26, #7 (April 4, 2016), pages 7 & 8.
Korean hitters try to succeed in major league baseball
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
In recent years, Major League Baseball (MLB) teams have imported fewer
Japanese hitters. Last season, outfielder Norichika Aoki of the San Francisco
Giants was the only MLB position player who’d begun his career in Nippon
Professional Baseball (NPB). But as the Japanese market has cooled down, the
market for Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) players has heated up. This
season, four former KBO position players should take the field in MLB.
The burgeoning Korean market can be traced to Jung-ho Kang, a KBO second
baseman who debuted for the Pittsburgh Pirates last season. Kang played nine
years in the KBO as a shortstop with three different teams. In that time, he
amassed a .298 batting average with 139 home runs, including 87 over his final
three seasons. He also swiped 51 bases and drove in 545 runs, but all of those
numbers were diluted by the perceptions about KBO and its players.
Despite Korea’s success in international tournaments like the Olympics and
the World Baseball Classic, many still regard the KBO as a vastly inferior
league, much as NPB once had a bad name. That was before the arrival of the
phenomenal Ichiro Suzuki from NPB. Ichiro erased those perceptions in his first
season, leading the league with a .350 average, 242 hits, and 56 stolen bases,
in the process of winning both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player
While Kang did not dazzle the way Ichiro did, Kang did remarkably well before
an injury cut his season short in mid-September. When an aggressive slide by
Chris Coghlan broke Kang’s leg and injured his knee, Kang was hitting .287 with
15 home runs and 58 RBI (Runs Batted In). Much of that production came in the
second half of the season, when he’d hit .310 with 11 home runs.
Kang’s success led to several offseason KBO position-player acquisitions. The
Minnesota Twins signed first baseman Byung-ho Park, the Baltimore Orioles inked
outfielder Hyun-soo Kim, and the Seattle Mariners picked up first baseman Dae-ho
Lee (who had been most recently playing in the NPB). All of them will get a
chance to prove whether KBO players can succeed in MLB — or even just survive.
The best of the bunch is Byung-ho Park, who led the KBO last season with 53
home runs and 146 RBI while hitting .343. That season was no fluke. Park hit
.314 over the past four seasons, averaging 43 homers, 123 RBI, and 12 steals.
The Twins paid $12.85 million for Park’s posting fee, and signed him to a
four-year deal worth $12 million.
Although Park plays a solid first base, the Twins already have Joe Mauer
playing there, so Park is expected to serve mainly as the team’s designated
hitter. So far in spring training, Park has dazzled with a .279 average, with
three home runs and 12 RBI, both second-best on the Twins. Minnesota hopes he
can maintain that production in the regular season and live up to his Korean
nickname, "Bang Park."
Expectations were similarly lofty for Hyun-soo Kim, an outfielder for the
KBO’s Doosan Bears who has also been among the top KBO hitters. Since signing as
the top hitter out of high school in 2006, Kim has hit at least .300 in every
season. He lacks Park’s prodigious power, with last season’s 28 homers — a
career high — but Kim bolsters his lifetime .318 batting average with a .406
on-base average, showing his excellent eye at the plate.
The Orioles signed Kim to a two-year, $7-million contract; since he was a
free agent, they owed no posting fee. Orioles management cited his durability —
he is nicknamed "Iron Man" for playing in 98 percent of his team’s games — as
well as his defense and ability to hit the other way.
Kim’s spring training has been less than impressive so far, as he is hitting
just .182. However, Kang also struggled in his first spring training. Baltimore
should remain patient with Kim, whose contract does not allow him to be assigned
to the minors without his permission.
Another impressive KBO hitter, Dae-ho Lee, is also fighting for a position
with the Seattle Mariners. Lee signed a minor-league deal with the Mariners in
February after spending ten years in KBO and four more in NPB. In the KBO, he
hit 225 home runs, leading the league twice in that category, including 2010,
when he hit a home run in nine consecutive games en route to a career-best 44.
After moving to the NPB, Lee averaged more than 24 home runs with the Orix
Blue Wave and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Last season, he led Fukuoka to the
Japan Series by hitting 31 home runs, his best output since 2010. After the
Hawks won the series, Lee became the first Korean player to be named as series
Though he sounds as promising as Park, Lee is five years older and 100 pounds
heavier than Park. This adds enough uncertainty for Seattle to sign Lee, a free
agent, to just a minor-league deal. He has hit .250 so far in spring training,
with one home run, but he has looked impressive enough that he is expected to
make the Opening Day roster.
On top of the two KBO and six NPB pitchers currently in MLB, Asian-American
sports fans will have these new Korean hitters to watch and cheer for. If these
hitters can succeed in MLB the way Ichiro and other Japanese position players
have, expect many more to follow.
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