Korean players in Major League Baseball

by Daniel Lee | 5/12/16 5:00pm

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In the 2013 National League Championship Series, Hyun-Jin Ryu became the first Korean pitcher to get a postseason win.

Though I am now someone who frequently checks the results of every single baseball game and tries to analyze sabermetrics, I was not interested in baseball for much of my life. The first time I enthusiastically went to a baseball game was after the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Hyun-Jin Ryu, the first player to come from the Korean Baseball Organization. The biggest spending team in Major League Baseball submitted a bid of $25,737,737.33 to the Hanwha Eagles, the Korean team that had Ryu under contract at the time, and the Dodgers ultimately signed Ryu to a six-year, $36 million contract. From that point forward, I continued to follow the Dodgers and visited Chavez Ravine more frequently to see Ryu rather than Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw, who won his second Cy Young that year. What captivated me the most was seeing someone of the same nationality as me playing for the team that represented the city I call home.

At times, Ryu’s success seemed almost personal and it didn’t take very long for me to understand why so many Latinos and Japanese Americans supported MLB players who came from the same country as themselves. Ryu was one of few Korean players, and even fewer Korean pitchers, to play for a MLB team. His most successful predecessor was Chan Ho Park who pitched 17 seasons in the MLB. There is no doubt that his performances were heavily scrutinized by almost every single Major League team to determine whether signing players from the KBO was a worthwhile investment.

After Ryu earned 14 wins, a 3.00 ERA and 154 strikeouts in 192 innings his first season, he quickly became one of the best pitchers in the league. His success and ability to quickly adapt to Major League hitters gave oversea MLB scouters every reason to look more carefully into the KBO. The Baltimore Orioles were the next team to take the risk and signed former KBO Most Valuable Player, three-time KBO All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Suk-Min Yoon to a three-year, $5.75 million contract. However, after an abysmal spring training and tough stint in the minor leagues with the Norfolk Tides, Yoon accepted a buyout deal and returned to Korea, forfeiting the $4.15 million left in the last two years of his contract.

Despite the heartbreaking failure of Yoon’s attempt at pitching for the MLB, this season the St. Louis Cardinals signed Korean closer Seung-hwan Oh, who most recently pitched for the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan after nine years in the KBO. Oh agreed to a one-year deal with a club option for 2017, which could be worth around $5 million if the option for a second year is exercised. After pitching in 16 games this season, Oh has evidently proved that he could handle a new environment, recording 20 strikeouts in 16.1 innings and holding a 1.65 ERA for the red birds.

In the completely different part of the game, the Pittsburgh Pirates introduced the very first Korean position player to the MLB, Jung-Ho Kang, to a four-year $11 million contract with a $5.5 million club option for the fifth year in 2015. Despite a tough spring training, Kang quickly became a fan favorite after batting .287 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs his rookie season, finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting behind Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant and the San Francisco Giants’ Matt Duffy.

This season, five Korean baseball players made their debuts in the MLB, including Oh. The Minnesota Twins signed Byung-Ho Park, the Seattle Mariners signed Dae-Ho Lee, the Los Angeles Angels signed Ji-man Choi and the Orioles signed Hyun-Soo Kim. Two years after Ryu’s first season, it was clear the ripple effect that he had on league, trailblazing the way for five new players from the KBO. Three other players made their debuts earlier: Ryu, Kang and Texas Rangers outfielder, Shin Soo Choo, who signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners after high school in Korea. It has become significantly more difficult for Korean television networks to be able to broadcast three games almost every day, but the excitement that it brought to Koreans around the world was unprecedented.

It is clear that many MLB teams have underestimated the ability of Korean players to succeed in a more rigorous level of baseball given the performance of the eight active players thus far. Their success has not only attracted many Korean American fans to the game of baseball, but has sent a clear message that foreign players from different leagues are just as capable of competing at the highest level of the game.