Get to Know the KBO, Part Two

Yesterday, I went over the foreign-born players who ply their trade for five KBO teams. Today, as we continue to ramp up for Opening Day, let’s hit on the other five teams. As before, this is a mix of former 26th men and talented-but-flawed players, some of whom have unlocked new levels of their game in the KBO.

LG Twins

Casey Kelly: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Kelly was a fringy major leaguer who debuted in the majors in 2012 for the Padres and then bounced around the minors for years, sometimes making spot appearances when a team needed an extra starter or bullpen arm. A low-90s fastball and no obvious plus secondary — his closest is probably his two-plane, low-80s curve — simply don’t combine to stop major league hitters.

With the Twins, everything clicked. Kelly put up a stellar 2.55 ERA, which led to a $1.2 million contract with another $300,000 in incentives — Mel Rojas Jr. money. Under the hood, it wasn’t quite as pretty — his RA9 was 3.49 and his FIP was in the threes as well — but that’s still spectacular in a league where 4.6 runs are scored per game.

Like most pitchers in the KBO, Kelly forces opponents to beat him — he struck out 17% of the batters he faced and walked 5.5%. Between that glorious walk rate and a penchant for keeping the ball on the ground, he forced opposing hitters to play his game, and it paid off. This is what KBO teams are hoping for when they bring in a foreign-born pitcher: steady competence that adds up to ace-level numbers.

Tyler Wilson: Before Kelly, there was Wilson. After toiling in the Orioles system for six years with only 145.1 major league innings to show for it, he signed with the Twins before the 2018 season. In juiced-up 2018, he was awesome: a 3.07 ERA, a KBO-Haderesque 21.7% strikeout rate, and only 4.9% walks. He followed it up with a solid 2019, though a little worse after adjusting for the overall run-scoring environment: 18% strikeout rate, 5.6% walks, and tremendous home run suppression.

Naturally, the Twins want to keep Wilson, who gives the team a second ace to pair with Kelly. This offseason, they signed him to a $1.4 million contract with $300,000 in incentives. Stacking up aces isn’t just the Nationals way; it’s also the LG Twins way, and it led them to a tidy 79-64 record last year.

How did Wilson end up in Korea? He’d always wanted to experience it, and then Orioles teammate Hyun Soo Kim returned home to sign with the Twins after 2017. Wilson and Kim had been friends in the Orioles system, and while Wilson probably could have wrangled a major league contract or non-roster invite, he headed to Seoul soon after. Kim was a big help getting him acclimated, and the rest was history.

Roberto Ramos: Ramos looked like a fringe big leaguer — he hit .309/.400/.580 in offense-mad Albequerque in 2019 with a scary 28% strikeout rate, which simply wasn’t enough to crack the Rockies’ logjam of Ian Desmond and Daniel Murphy at first base. He still had enough power to merit a ranking on this year’s Rockies list before the Twins swooped in.

How is this going to work? The Twins hope he’s the next Mel Rojas Jr.; a minor league slugger whose strikeout issues were solved by a pitch-to-contact league. If he can get the strikeouts down towards 20%, he could easily be a .300/.400/.500 guy; he’s always had a good batting eye, and major-league-caliber bats in Korea often put up high BABIP’s.

But there’s plenty of risk here. His power certainly looks real, but if the power doesn’t translate and the strikeouts remain, the Twins could be on the market for another foreign-born hitter soon. That’s a perpetual risk for KBO teams, but one that looks worthwhile when it comes to Ramos. The star potential is certainly there.

NC Dinos

Mike Wright: Wright did three years’ duty on the Orioles’ bullpen shuttle. When he was out of options, the Mariners claimed him in 2019, and he started the dance again in their system. Rather than face another year of DFA’s and waiver claims, Wright signed with the Dinos this offseason.

You’ve seen the game before: low-90s fastball, strike-thrower, didn’t get enough whiffs to counter the home runs. He has the exact skillset KBO teams covet, particularly post-offensive-adjustment. The Dinos signed him to a $1 million contract to find out what he’s got; it almost certainly beats what he would have made in the US, and he’s now a prospective ace rather than a journeyman reliever. Good deal for everyone.

Drew Rucinski: By now, you know the drill. Fringy major leaguer, stuck in the Marlins system, a reliever with the stamina to start. He was pretty solid for the Dinos in 2019 after being pretty solid in the Marlins’ bullpen in 2018 — he was actually fifth in that bullpen in WAR, after fellow ex-pat Odrisamer Despaigne.

In Korea, his 16.3% strikeout rate and 5.9% walk rate looked just fine, though he did give up 13 homers in only 177 innings, which will be a concern in 2020. Still, like many of the pitchers dotting the KBO, he’s good enough to garner major league interest if he wants it. It’s simply financial reality, however, that he’ll be better off with the Dinos; and they’re definitely better off with him.

Aaron Altherr: Now this is a splashy acquisition. Altherr looked like a future regular for several seasons in Philadelphia. In 2017, a power spike catapulted him to a 120 wRC+ over nearly 500 plate appearances. He’s fallen on hard times in recent years, however, most recently popping up as part of the Mets’ many-headed outfield disaster in 2019.

That’s not to say he isn’t still a great player; he hit a tidy .270/.375/.527 in limited Triple-A time in 2019, and he still has an appealing power/speed combination. The strikeouts were simply overpowering, particularly in 2019, though they’d long been his biggest shortcoming.

Though this is becoming a bit repetitive, the Dinos are hoping he’ll be another Rojas Jr.; a strikeout-prone slugger who didn’t fit in in affiliated ball but who will feast on the more contact-oriented game. The upside here is tremendous: Rojas Jr. became a pre-eminent power hitter despite topping out in the minors, while Altherr was a solid regular in the big leagues. If he can put everything together, he could be MVP caliber.

Of course, he could also flame out. The Altherr who played in 2019 was a mess; he may still have been struggling with a ligament tear in his big toe, which he suffered in late 2018, but he also looked lost at the plate. Even in a small sample, a 17.5% swinging strike rate is ghastly. We’ll have to see how the signing turns out, but it’s a boom/bust gamble.

Kiwoom Heroes

Jake Brigham: Brigham is a KBO veteran; this will be his fourth season with the Heroes. He’s gathered steam as the years have passed: in 2017, he compiled a decent 4.38 ERA (remember, this was a livelier era for offense) and the characteristic middling-strikeout, low-walk game that’s typical of foreign-born KBO pitchers.

Over time, he’s turned from that into more of a power pitcher, adjusted for the league; over the last two years, his strikeout rate has hovered around 20%. He also limited home run damage in 2019, with only five long balls allowed. That package works out to a stellar pitcher, one whose peripherals match his sub-3 ERA. Re-signing him was a coup for the Heroes, who have championship dreams after falling to the Bears in last year’s final.

Eric Jokisch: Jokisch has a 1.88 career major league ERA! He also has a 5.30 FIP and more than a thousand innings of up-and-down pitching across all levels of the minors, which led him to the Heroes for the 2019 season. He’s more upper 80s than lower 90s, which distinguishes him from the average ex-pat, but he can pitch to contact with the best of them, and his sinker/changeup combination served him well in 2019.

The stats will feel familiar to you: 18.9% strikeout rate, 5.2% walk rate, and few home runs allowed, backing up a nice little 3.11 ERA. He and Brigham anchor a rotation that was third in the league in ERA and the best at limiting walks. The script will be the same in 2020, though with a raise; Jokisch will be making roughly $1 million this year, enough to keep him from looking for a return to affiliated ball.

Taylor Motter: The Heroes were heroes at the plate in 2019 (sorry!), best in the league in OPS and runs scored. Jerry Sands, their slugging right fielder, was a key part of that. But he was so impressive that the Hanshin Tigers scooped him up to play in the NPB. Enter Motter, who never quite stuck in the majors but always looked like he might provide enough value, between a blend of walks, speed, and versatility, to stick at the back of a big league roster.

He’s a bargain acquisition for the Heroes at only $350,000, which gives them the flexibility to walk away from him if he’s slow to acclimate. But if his bat plays — and while the level isn’t quite the same, he did hit .282/.396/.496 in the Atlantic League last year — he’ll be a hirsute Ben Zobrist, chipping in value while standing all over the place.

Samsung Lions

David Buchanan: After a few decent years spent between Triple-A and the majors for the Phillies, Buchanan sought greener pastures in Asia — with the Yakult Swallows of the NPB, in 2017. He struggled in 2019 and was demoted to the minor leagues there, which led to his signing with the Lions this offseason.

The arsenal is exactly what you’d expect: an upper-80s fastball, with a slider and a changeup vying for second place among his offerings. He had trouble striking out NPB batters, posting below-average strikeout rates in each of his years there, which is a worrisome sign. His calling card is limiting home runs, and if he can do that, the acquisition will look just fine — but there are warning signs here.

Ben Lively: Lively spent a lot of his stateside career striking out enough batters to be intriguing while walking enough to be frustrating. He signed with the Lions midway through last year to replace the exquisitely named Deck McGuire and promptly brought the same game to the KBO.

With eight teams in the rear-view mirror, Lively’s 24.6% strikeout rate should really pop. Pitchers simply don’t put up numbers like that, and he walked less than 6% of opponents to boot. It was, admittedly, in only half a season — but the numbers were nearly off the charts, and the Lions quickly gave him a raise. He signed for $750,000 for 2020, with an additional $250,000 in incentives that could make him a $1 million arm. And I made it through this entire comment without making a joke about his lively fastball, so we’re all winners here.

Tyler Saladino: It doesn’t feel like Saladino batted 1,000 times in the majors, but his defensive versatility earned him a lot of playing time on some bad White Sox teams, as well as less playing time on better Brewers teams. He consistently performed in the minors — he posted above-average offensive lines in five straight Triple-A seasons — and played every position other than catcher.

That kind of game might snag him a major league utility infielder deal, so the Lions paid up, offering him $800,000 plus incentives to lure him to Korea. He won’t hit for much power, but if he can put the ball in play, the team will likely be quite happy with their signing, as he’ll surely contribute in the field.

One potential snag: Saladino is replacing Darin Ruf, who ran roughshod over the KBO for three straight years before taking a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants. It would be nearly impossible for Saladino to contribute as much as Ruf did, which limits the team’s upside, and they were a lackluster 60-83 last year. Saladino’s bat might not be enough to get them into contention, though Lively’s arm (and the re-acquisition of former star reliever Seung-hwan Oh) will have something to say about that.

SK Wyverns

Nick Kingham: Kingham had some serious prospect buzz in Pittsburgh. He topped out on the cusp of the team’s top 10 prospects on the back of a fastball/curve combination that at times overwhelmed minor leaguers. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep the ball on the ground, and that didn’t cut it in 2018 and 2019 — his 19% strikeout rate wasn’t enough to offset stacks and towers of home runs, 29 in 131.2 innings.

The Wyverns boasted the best pitching staff in the league last year by most metrics, and they hope Kingham can continue that form. He looks like a good bet to do it, to my eyes: his curve misses bats, and his fastball should play a lot better when the ball isn’t turbo-charged. He was consistently excellent at limiting walks in the minors, a vital skill given the lack of homers and strikeouts. And he’s still only 28 — it might feel like he was a prospect a decade ago, and he was in fact drafted in 2010, but he was a high school draft pick that year.

Ricardo Pinto: Pinto is definitely not your average KBO signing. He’s the last pitcher on this list, and by now you know the rough outlines: fastball that hovers around 90 mph, fills the strike zone, would rather eat live spiders than give up a walk. Pinto sits 94-96 and tops out around 98, which makes him Noah Syndergaard or Nathan Eovaldi after adjusting for the league.

He also, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same aversion to walks that many of his ex-pat counterparts share. He walked 12% of the opponents he faced in his short major league career, a rate that simply wouldn’t work here. But there’s a silver lining; his issue wasn’t so much wildness as a complete inability to put major league hitters away. His 71.3% out-of-zone contact rate in his short big league career explains a lot — batters simply fouled off the pitchers Pinto wanted before hammering something in the zone.

If that’s the case this year, Pinto will be fine. He’ll turn some of those foul balls into whiffs, and he’s not truly wild; he can hit the zone when he wants to, it was just too dangerous of a proposition in the major leagues. He’s also only 26, which leaves him plenty of time to develop his craft; if he can upgrade one of his secondary pitches enough to miss a few more bats, he’d instantly be one of the most fearsome pitchers in the league.

Jamie Romak: If Rojas Jr. isn’t the premier foreign hitter in the KBO, that honor falls to Romak. He’s heading into his fourth year in the league, and he clubbed 29 home runs to go with a .276/.370/.508 batting line last year for the Wyverns. His major league stats are hardly relevant anymore: he totaled 39 plate appearances in the bigs, and last played in the minors for a single brief stint in 2017. But his game will look familiar to MLB fans; he struck out 20.2% of the time last year, walked at a scrumptious 12.7% rate, and generally did his part to bring true outcomes to a league that has almost none of them.

At 33, Romak will likely finish out his career in the KBO, where he’s become a fan favorite. The Wyverns were light on power in 2019, even with Romak’s bat in the lineup, and they made re-signing him a priority this offseason. All in all, if you hunger for a more familiar game, the Wyverns might be your ticket: Romak, Pinto, and Kingham all have the potential for big strikeout numbers — great for pitchers but not so great for Romak — and watching Romak club pitches into the seats should give you a warm and fuzzy feeling if you just crave home runs.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

I wonder which of these players is most likely to come back to MLB someday?

Capn Ketchupmember
4 years ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

Likely none. Most are past 30 , and certified AAAA players. That being said, I think it would most likely be a pitcher, someone to be a middle reliever on a sub .500 team. I do hope it’s all of them, though, provided that’s what they want!

4 years ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

Likely none but looking at deep.

In Korea, a webpage called “statiz” calculate WAR of KBO players,

Among pitchers, the ranking of WAR was just like this in 2019
1. Hyunjong Yang(7.35) 2. Lindblom(2020 MIL) 6.86 3. Kwanghyun Kim(2020 STL) 6.39 4. Sanchez 5.93 (2020 NPB-Yomiuri) and 5th is Drew Rucinski who is just 4.49, followed by Chad bell, Jokisch, Saupold, Brooks Raley and Kelly (TOP 10, who were more than 3.9 WAR)
So, it doesn’t seems like KBO veterans except Korean lefty pitcher Hyun-jong Yang(KIA tigers) could come to big league soon.
I cannot expect the performance of newcomer pitcher but Chris Flexen(NYM->Doosan bears) Mike Wright(BAL/SEA->NC Dinos), Drew Gagnon(NYM->Kia Tigers) and Dan Straily (Lotte) gets the highest payment for 1st year players which is 1 million USD. Among them, Flexen is youngest (born in 94′) and seems to have some expectancy.
(AAA 78.2IP ERA4.46 K/9 10.5 BB/9 2.4 but showed ERA 6.59 10K/13BB in 13.2IP MLB experience last year)

For batters, Mel Rojas Jr is best, who was 5th in batters WAR 5.49, followed by 6th player Byung-Ho Park who played a year with Minnesota Twins with poor performance. Actually there aren’t much hurling non-Korean batters than pitchers. Non-Korean + Top 10 WAR players were only
4. Jerry Sands (now Hanshin Tigers in Japan) 6.16
5. M Rojas Jr 5.49
7. J Fernandes (Doosan) 5.1
Also, Aaron Altheer(NC Dinos, ex Philies) is the only player who gets 1M USD as rookie foreign player in 2020 season.

Korean shortstop Ha-seong Kim (Kiwoom Heroes) is one of the best infielder in Korea so I think he is the most suitable prospect who could head to MLB in next few years.
(139G AVG.307 19HR as shortstop. 7.17WAR)