Get To Know This Year’s Foreign Imports: Korea

Prior to 2013, the Dodgers went out and got themselves Korean lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, and you might say that’s worked out really, really well. Despite the initial uncertainty from some corners of the baseball world — totally understandable for a player making the jump from the other side of the planet to the big leagues, of course — Ryu has been just fantastic for the Dodgers, ranking No. 9 in FIP across his two seasons, surrounded by some of the biggest stud pitchers in baseball. Last year, they reportedly showed interest in Masahiro Tanaka, who was dominant for the Yankees before missing three months with an elbow injury. They’d also been sniffing around teen sensation Shohei Otani, who unfortunately ended up staying in Japan. (He has an .862 OPS and a 10.3 K/9. Good lord.)

Clearly, international spending — Ryu, Cuba’s Yasiel Puig & Alex Guerrero, Mexico’s Julio Urias & Julian Leon, etc. — has been a big component of the Guggenheim plan to revitalize the team from the dark days of the McCourt ownership. So as the 2014-15 offseason nears, are there names we should know as potential Dodger targets?

Yes, there are. Here are names. Know them. We’ll start with Korea, which has supplied the majors with 13 pitchers — most famously Chan Ho Park, though Ryu and Jae Weong Seo have also appeared for the Dodgers — and just two hitters, Hee-Seop Choi and Shin-Soo Choo. We’ll look at Japan separately, and soon.

Kwang-hyun Kim, 26, LHP

This is a good start!

From 2008 to 2010, his ages 20 to 22 seasons, Kim rivaled Hyun-Jin Ryu as the most talented young lefty in the nation. He went 16-4 with 2.39 ERA in 27 starts in 2008, winning the league MVP, the gold medal for Team Korea in the Beijing Olympics, and another Korean Series trophy as the Wyverns won consecutive titles. He went 12-2 with 2.80 ERA in 2009 and 17-7, 2.37 ERA in 193.2 IP in 2010 (and another Wyverns title). By the end of 2010, there wasn’t much doubt about his place as one of the best lefties in the history of Korean baseball.

This is not a good finish!

However, starting in 2011, Kim became plagued by slumps and injuries. From 2011 to 2013, he posted 4.84, 4.30 and 4.47 ERAs, respectively, with worse control (4.64 BB/9 from 2011-13 as opposed to 3.64 BB/9 in 2008-2010) and strikeout numbers (7.10 K/9 from 2011-13 as opposed to 8.11 K/9 from 2008-10). The 2014 season was not his best year, however he came back as a healthy, full-time starter who finished second in the league in ERA (3.42) and home run rate (0.52 HR/9) and seventh in strikeout rate (7.51 K/9). His fastball hit as high as 96 mph, which is around where he topped when he was a younger ace. His 3.42 ERA in 173.2 IP may not be impressive for a pitcher that is pitching at a well-below NPB’s level, but KBO experienced a historical offensive explosion this summer.

That’s all from a guest post by a Korean baseball expert at River Ave. Blues, and if you notice this post is going to have more quotes than usual, it’s because I hardly know much about these guys either and I’m doing this as much for my own education as yours. Obviously, you can’t totally scout the stat line, so it’s good to have some context, like knowing that he’d been dealing with injuries.

That report doesn’t explain what the injuries were, though. This one, from July 2013, does, and it’s a little terrifying:

He suffered a mild stroke after the 2010 playoffs, and was later slowed by injuries to his shoulder and elbow.

Another source called it a “facial paralysis due to a cerebral infarction,” which sounds all sorts of not good, though it appears he’s overcome it fully. There’s also a scouting report there:

Kim’s fastball velocity generally sits between 88-91 mph, but is often erratic, and varies between 86-95 mph. As a tall overhanded southpaw, he has a high release point, which adds more velocity to his fastball. Kim is also famous for his dynamic pitching style with a high kick before his windup. His best pitch is his slider, which has both vertical and horizontal movements. One of his big weaknesses however, is his lack of control. Throughout his KBO career, he has allowed 4.1 base-on-balls per 9 innings pitched.

One Major League spoke of Kim, “He has big league stuff. Definitely a big league slider. But due to his control issues, throwing less than 50% of his pitches in the strike zone, I see his best fit as a major league matchup guy against left handed hitters.

And yet another report, also from 2013, considers him a reliever in the bigs as well:

To me, Kim didn’t show a plus pitch except when he was able to get the fastball up to 92 MPH with movement. As a starter, it is pretty clear that he can’t do that consistently. In the KBO, he will obviously stay as a starter, and should, if he is healthy, keep throwing at about an average to slightly above average rate. However, for him to have a future in the Majors, he would have to convert to a reliever.

Of course, it’s fair to note that those opinions may have changed since he was able to prove his health in 2014. From our friends at MyKBO, here he is in May whiffing 10 LG Twins. There’s definitely some things to like here, and I’m not even talking about what appears to be a calypso elevator music version of “Stand” by R.E.M.:

Kim wants to come to America and will be posted, and the good news is that he was fully healthy in 2014, throwing 173.2 innings and reportedly touching the mid 90s with his fastball, though generally sitting lower than that. The less good news is that he had some serious control issues, walking 4.20/9. Between the command trouble and the injury history, there’s more than a little risk here and so despite his former dominance, I can’t imagine he gets anything near what Ryu did, especially when the domestic pitching market is so flush this winter. If teams deem him to be a reliever, that dollar amount drops even further.

While Ryu has been outstanding, it’s not like all of these deals work out, either. The Orioles gave Suk-min Yoon three years (and only $5.75m) this year, knowing he was coming off 2013 shoulder issues, and he put up a 5.74 ERA… for Triple-A Norfolk. With the clear disclaimer that I hadn’t heard of this guy more than an hour before I started writing this, my guess is he’ll get himself a roster spot, but it’s a 50/50 bet as to whether he’s in the back of some team’s rotation or in the bullpen.

Jung-ho Kang, 27, SS

A power-hitting shortstop who might not actually be able to play shortstop? That doesn’t sound familiar at all. Kang hit .360/.463/.756 with 38 homers in just 107 games this year, and that’s impressive, but in order to translate that to the big leagues, Kang is going to have to overcome some unfriendly history — namely, that Choo and Choi are the only Korean hitters to ever make it to the bigs, and Choi didn’t have much of a career to speak of. (Thanks, Jim Tracy!) Both of them came up through the minors first, too. There’s never been a successful major league Korean infielder. There’s never been a Korean middle infielder, period. That’s not to say that there can’t, just that there hasn’t been, and that may cause teams to pause.

Kang — apparently, it’s pronounced “Ghang,” so keep your Kodos jokes to yourself — is not eligible for free agency for two more years, so if his Korean team is posting him now, it’s because they want to take advantage of that massive stat line, knowing his value can only go one way from here. As we just saw in the Kim section above, the KBO had a huge offensive season all around — former Giant Ryan Sadowski, who pitched in Korea from 2010-12, was quoted as saying “In 2014, we have seen an 80% increase in homeruns produced in comparison to the 2012 season,” which, holy crap — so Kang’s homer total is to be taken with a grain of salt, as he’d never topped 25 before. For example, Eric Thames, who played in parts of two big league seasons, is hitting .341/.421/.668 over there. In retrospect, maybe Kim looks a little better now.

Still, you don’t out-slug the rest of the league by 60 points by accident, so Kang must be taken seriously. Seriously, though, that leg kick:

And he’s certainly got some flashy moments, as his 2013 highlight video attests:

To the scouting reports!

GSI:

Although he is not very agile in the field, his strong arm makes up for it in his ability to play the shortstop position. However, he has committed errors in routine plays at times, which has led some experts to doubt whether he can be an everyday shortstop in MLB.

Quoting an MLB scout: “I think Kang has a functional arm at SS, but he may be better suited at 3B or RF. He doesn’t have the range to play SS and I don’t think he has the glove to play 3B. He may be able to play RF but that position will require better offensive production. He certainly has the arm to play RF.”

Wall Street Journal:

Despite the debate, Kang looks set to find a home with a MLB team. While Mr. Dierkes was uncertain about which teams would emerge as top contenders for Kang’s services, he expects the transfer fee to be between $2 million and $3 million. He estimated that the contract would be approximately 3 years for $9 million.

That… seems like not a lot, and probably less than he’ll really get Can’t say this is encouraging, either:

After watching more than a few homer videos on YouTube of Kang — seriously, there are tons — it’s hard to believe that even the power isn’t plus, though if he’s not able to get to it, meaning that he can’t make enough contact for it to matter, then that’s a big problem.

That said, do watch all 38 of them in a row, please:

But apparently, Kang and Ryu are friends?

Fellow South Korean major league player Ryu Hyun-jin claimed the two were “best friends” and expressed interest in playing alongside him.

“The Dodgers would win many more games if Kang Jung-ho joined the team,” said Ryu during a South Korean press conference.

I will assume that’s respect and politeness, and not “Hanley Ramirez is actively costing us games.”

Maybe some of the pessimism there goes back to what I said earlier, that no Korean hitter has ever successfully jumped right from the KBO to MLB. The track record there is just zero, and with questions about whether Kang can even be a shortstop, that makes him enormously risky. The Dodgers seem to have enough questions on the left side of the infield right now. I’m not entirely sure that Kang is the answer.

About Mike Petriello

Mike Petriello

Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.