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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 Gutierrez)

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, File)

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 awards.

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 MVP.

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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