Known as The Final Boss, Seung Oh has been a force out of the St. Louis bullpen. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)
Founded in 1982 as the highest league in South Korea, the Korean Baseball Organization spent its first 32 years of existence utterly neglected by the major leagues. Its top players graduated to Japan, never the United States. Chan Ho Park bypassed the league before he became the first South Korean big leaguer in 1994, and so did Shin-Soo Choo about a decade later.
It represented both an experiment and a risk, then, when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed infielder Jung-ho Kang to a four-year, $11 million contract, with a team option for a fifth season, last winter. The Pirates made Kang the first position player from the KBO to appear in the big leagues. He started slow, and just as skepticism mounted, Kang became one of the Pirates’ most valuable teammates, a versatile defensive player with big power.
The risk now stands as an utter bargain and, perhaps, the opening of a burgeoning pipeline. Four more players followed Kang’s path from KBO to MLB this winter, and through more than a third of the season, all have experienced degrees of success. For years, the KBO produced no big leaguers. For the past two years, it has sent to MLB some of the best bargains in baseball.
No team in possession of one would regret their KBO import. Cardinals reliever Seung-hwan Oh, Twins slugger Byung-ho Park, Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim and Mariners first baseman Dae-ho Lee have followed Kang in becoming key contributors. None of them are making more than $5 million this season.
“I think it’s possible the [KBO] has been overlooked,” said Bill Singer, a retired scout who spent many years scouting in Asia. “There are big-league players everywhere in the world. You can’t just say the U.S. is the only place in the world with players who have big-league ability. Ever since they did well in the WBC in 2004, Korea seems to have blossomed more with players. The WBC performance in those years helped baseball across the country. Attendance got better. The quality of the game has improved.”
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The overall quality of the league is roughly equivalent to Class AA, Singer said. The pitching is thin, and beyond the top hitters, many position players lack the bat speed necessary to play in the majors. There are still players in KBO that could serve a role in the majors, even if not as an everyday player. It’s likely the success of Korean players, especially at modest salaries, will convince other teams to take the KBO more seriously.
“They are already,” Singer said. “They were last year. I saw scouts there that 10 years before I never would have seen.”
The players they’ve found have mostly exceeded expectations. Oh, a 33-year-old pitching on a one-year, $5 million deal that includes a team option, was a longtime closer in South Korea, nicknamed The Final Boss. He has been one of the most valuable relievers in baseball, an all-star candidate despite pitching as a set-up man, a difficult role from which to make the team. Oh has struck out 50 of the 143 batters he’s faced while walking only eight. He leads the Cardinals’ bullpen in both appearances (36) and innings (37).
Park, 29, was expected to be the best of this winter’s signees, but he has hit only .203 with a .724 OPS as a first baseman and designated hitter, the difficulty of his transition highlighted by striking out in 31 percent of his plate appearance. But Park has delivered as promised with power, socking 12 homers and nine doubles among his 41 hits.
“He just has to learn to swing at strikes,” Singer said. “Park’s got power as good as anybody.” And he’s making just $3 million per season over the course of a four-year deal.
Lee and Kim have both performed well as role players. Kim refused the Orioles’ minor league assignment at the end of a rocky spring, and in a part-time role he’s shown advanced contact skills, hitting .339 with just 16 strikeouts in 127 plate appearances. The Mariners signed Lee, 33, to a one year, $1 million minor league deal worth up to $4 million with incentives. He’s slugged 10 homers with an .875 OPS in a platoon role, blowing away expectations.
Kang remains the gold standard among KBO defectors. He returned in early May from the gruesome knee injury he suffered late last season, and in 39 games he’s hit 10 homers with a .913 OPS. He hasn’t played middle infield while coming off the injury, but he clearly has enough bat to stay in a corner position. The Pirates could not be happier to have plucked him out of the KBO, and other teams should take notice.