SEOUL, July 11 (Yonhap) — The first half of the 2016 major league season will draw to a close Monday, and a rookie reliever enters the All-Star break as the most impressive member of the South Korean contingent.
There were six healthy South Korean players at the start of the season, with two more on the mend. Entering the All-Star break, there are seven from the country on the active rosters, though a couple of them suffered injuries over the weekend.
In between, Oh Seung-hwan, right-handed reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals, has been the only one to see regular big league action from start to finish.
Oh signed with the Cardinals in January after 11 largely successful seasons in South Korea and Japan. He is the all-time leader in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) with 277 saves, and added 80 more saves in two years in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
Oh began the season as a setup man for All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal, but took over from the struggling right-hander late last month. Oh has looked uncharacteristically shaky at times while converting both of his save opportunities, but still ended the first half with a perfect 2-0 mark and two saves, with a 1.59 ERA in 45 1/3 innings. He has 59 strikeouts against 13 walks in those innings.
St. Louis Cardinals’ relief pitcher Oh Seung-hwan (R) celebrates his first major league save with catcher Yadier Molina against the Milwaukee Brewers in St. Louis in this Associated Press photo on July 2, 2016. (Yonhap)
Lee Dae-ho of the Seattle Mariners is another player who had stints in South Korea and Japan before moving to the majors. The 2015 Japan Series MVP left a lucrative offer from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks to take a minor league deal with the Mariners and worked his way onto the 25-man roster to start the season.
Lee, who bats right-handed, platooned at first base with left-handed hitting Adam Lind to open the season, and mostly got his chances against left-handed pitchers.
Despite limited opportunities, Lee put up better numbers across the board than Lind and started getting into games more regularly around mid-June.
Lee missed the final game of the first half against the Kansas City Royals on Sunday with a right hand contusion suffered a day earlier. He ended the first half with 12 home runs, 37 RBIs and a .288/.330/.514 line in 177 at-bats.
In comparison, Lind had 13 homers and 39 RBIs in 233 at-bats, with a .232/.261/.438 line.
Lee has also emerged as a fan favorite in Seattle with some timely home runs. He hit a walk-off bomb off Texas Rangers’ Jake Diekman on April 13 to give the Mariners their first home victory of the season.
In this Associated Press photo, Lee Dae-ho of the Seattle Mariners connects for a two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles in Seattle on July 1, 2016. (Yonhap)
Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles also made the most of his limited chances en route to winning a regular big league job.
The former batting champion in South Korea played poorly in spring training. After exercising his contractual rights to refuse a minor league assignment, Kim was even booed by home fans in the season opener.
The outfielder appeared in just six games in April, but gradually built a strong case to play on a more regular basis. Coupled with struggles by Joey Rickard, who won the Opening Day left field job over Kim, the South Korean began seeing more action around mid-May.
Though he hasn’t hit for much power — three home runs in 152 at-bats — Kim closed out the first half with a .329/.410/.454 line. He has drawn 18 walks against 22 strikeouts, a strong ratio on a team full of free swingers.
On a down note, Kim left Sunday’s game with a right hamstring injury after grounding out to second base in the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels.
Others had up-and-down first halves, slowed by injuries and extended slumps.
Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins opened the season swinging a hot bat, belting six home runs in his first 66 at-bats.
Unable to turn on inside fastballs and lay off breaking pitches down and away, Park got into a cold spell that eventually led to his demotion to Triple-A on July 1.
He batted .191 with 80 strikeouts in 62 games before the minor league assignment. He had 12 homers but none after June 18.
Park’s former teammate in South Korea, Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates, didn’t begin his season until early May. He suffered serious leg injuries last September on a hard take-out slide at second base, but Kang returned with a bang by hitting a couple of home runs in his season debut against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 6.
Kang has cooled off of late, and closed out the first half without a home run over his past 12 games. He is also being investigated over a sexual assault allegation that emerged in Chicago.
Kang has 11 homers and 30 RBIs with a .248 batting average in 165 at-bats, compared to 15 home runs, 58 RBIs and a .287 average in 421 at-bats in his rookie season in 2015.
Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers rounds the bases after a solo shot against the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis in this Associated Press photo on July 3, 2016. (Yonhap)
The Texas Rangers’ veteran outfielder Choo Shin-soo had two stints on the disable list, first with a calf injury and then a hamstring issue. The 33-year-old has bounced back nicely, however, with seven home runs and four steals in 31 games.
Long known for discipline and patience at the plate, Choo has drawn 18 walks and has a team-high .388 on-base percentage.
For the Los Angeles Dodgers, left-handed starter Ryu Hyun-jin has made one start this season following a shoulder operation from May last year. He made eight rehab appearances in the minors, but was roughed up in a loss to the San Diego Padres last Thursday, allowing six runs on eight hits, including five extra-base hits, in 4 2/3 innings.
Ryu touched 92 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball early on but didn’t crack 90 in the fifth inning, his final frame. His slider and changeup were also off.
A career minor leaguer Choi Ji-man made his major league debut this season for the Los Angeles Angels, but was sent down to Triple-A after clearing the waivers in mid-May. He’d gone just 1-for-18 with six walks.
Choi was called up by the Angels on Saturday to fill in for injured first baseman C.J. Cron. He hit his first major league double Sunday against the Orioles.