Ha-seong Kim Has Big MLB Aspirations and Projections

With the 2020 MLB season delayed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) received more attention in the United States than usual. While discerning fans — you! — were already aware of the quality of baseball in South Korea, others got their first extended exposure to the league this spring. And one of the players who might have stood out is the Kiwoom Heroes’ current home run leader, Ha-seong Kim 김하성. Kim, who is hitting .304/.396/.521 while splitting time between shortstop and third base, is in his sixth season as a full-time starter in the KBO, and has never had an OPS lower than his 2018 .832 mark despite debuting as a teenager. With the news that Kiwoom will be posting Kim this offseason, it’s quite likely that he’ll be bringing his talents to MLB.

Star shortstops don’t actually hit free agency in their primes all that often. If you’re strict and only count players who their new teams are signing to play the position — Manny Machado was brought in to man third base for the Padres and Hanley Ramirez never played a game at the position for Boston — the last free agent shortstops to sign for at least $20 million guaranteed were José Reyes and Jimmy Rollins after the 2011 season. This year, there’s a very good possibility that at least three — Andrelton Simmons, Marcus Semien, and Didi Gregorius — pass that threshold. Kim could be the fourth.

This isn’t a case of Kim simply dipping his toes into the market, as he has previously expressed a desire to play in the United State. Per the Korea JoongAng Daily:

Although he still has a year to go, the Heroes have already said that they will post Kim, if he wants them to.

“Since there are quite a number of veterans trying out for the MLB this year, I meant to say I could go if I play well next season,” Kim said. “But it seems like my decision has already been finalized so I feel a little overwhelmed. I’m not there yet. Some of the fans doubted me by saying, ‘Can Kim Ha-seong do it?’” …

[Park] Byung-ho told me that not many players can actually do it,” Kim said. “He encouraged me by telling me that I should give it a try if I can get that chance, and that helped me gain confidence. Even if it’s not an easy path, I’m the one going down that path, so I’m going to care less about [the negative comments] and go my own way.”

Kim also has the significant benefit of getting to come to the United States at a fairly young age — he’ll be just 25 after his birthday next week. That’s younger than most, given that KBO players cannot be posted until they’ve accrued seven years of service time, only becoming unrestricted free agents after nine years. Debuting at 18 has its advantages in this case. Under the new posting rules introduced in 2018, posting teams no longer take bids, instead getting 20% of a player’s first guaranteed $25 million, 17.5% of the next $25 million, and 15% after that. For a top player, that can make a real difference. The Dodgers paid $61.5 million to bring in Hyun Jin Ryu before the 2013 season — $25.7 million for the posting fee and $36 million in guaranteed salary for Ryu. Under the current posting system, instead of a winning bid, Ryu’s former team, the Hanwha Eagles, would have received just $11.1 million.

So, how good is Kim? He’s mastered the KBO, but the league doesn’t have the same level of play as MLB or NPB. By looking at historical moves from Korea to the US (and back) and Korea to Japan (and back), I get a rough translation of somewhere between Double- and Triple-A. That doesn’t mean that the best players in the KBO are only Double-A and a half in terms of talent, as the posting system restrictions are a brick wall that players in Double-A ball aren’t subject to. If, as a Double-A shortstop, Kim hit .290/.362/.489 at age-19, he’d have been considered an ultra-elite prospect. And he’s certainly done nothing since that season to inspire disappointment!

From a scouting standpoint, there isn’t a great deal of fretting, either. In our ranking of international prospects on The Board, Kim ranks at the top with a future value of 50 and no risk modifier. For reference, our 50 FV prospects rank from 44th (Jasson Dominguez) to 115th (Isaac Paredes), so it wouldn’t be a stretch to call a Kim bound for the US (or Canada!) a top 100 prospect. Kyle Glaser of Baseball America agreed in May, calling him a top 100 prospect and ranking him as the top player in Korea when it came to future MLB potential.

Translated stats, at least the ones generated by ZiPS, agree with the positive feelings about Kim’s play.:

ZiPS Translations – Ha-seong Kim
2015 .227 .279 .376 532 61 121 29 7 12 56 36 161 14 4
2016 .231 .288 .385 524 63 121 25 7 14 60 40 127 17 -3
2017 .270 .334 .428 556 82 150 36 2 16 75 54 113 24 5
2018 .254 .312 .429 590 82 150 30 5 21 78 47 127 7 5
2019 .289 .355 .475 627 96 181 44 2 23 90 61 127 26 -1
2020 .274 .345 .478 552 90 151 24 1 29 88 57 92 17 -4

Defensive numbers from the minors are dicey in the best of times and there’s little for ZiPS to go on here other than GB/FB adjusted range factors. But the quality of the translation doesn’t rely on any wild defensive evaluation and there’s no real reason to think that he’s a lousy shortstop, either. The translation, which take into account park and league offense, shows more growth than is apparent from the raw stats.

ZiPS Projection – Ha-seong Kim
2021 .274 .343 .477 503 80 138 29 2 23 82 51 95 17 117 0 3.8
2022 .273 .344 .482 494 80 135 30 2 23 83 51 97 15 118 0 3.8
2023 .271 .344 .492 490 80 133 30 3 24 83 52 100 16 121 0 3.9
2024 .270 .344 .490 478 78 129 29 2 24 82 52 97 15 120 -1 3.7
2025 .270 .343 .490 467 76 126 28 3 23 80 50 91 15 120 -2 3.5

Those are the projections of a player who ought to be highly sought after, even in an offseason full of uncertainty due to COVID-19 and the relating economic downturn. Normally, a player like this would get north of $100 million, though it remains to be seen just how teams will view him this winter given the possibility for additional perceived risk for a player from a different league. If Kim comes to the majors and doesn’t get a guaranteed contract worth $50 million, some team likely got a helluva deal from their point-of-view. Pretty much every team that’s near contention and without a good shortstop already should strongly consider Kim this offseason. And giving one of Korea’s biggest stars a platform to show off his talents will hopefully open the door for more players to come here, making MLB an even more international game than it already is.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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2 years ago

The real question is the defense, right? If he can play an average-or-better shortstop then teams should be lining up for him. His offensive numbers suggest he’s a better than league average hitter, and a league-average hitter playing a league-average shortstop for 600+ PAs is a 3-win player.

Stoic Stathead
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Right, can he play middle infield at MLB level?

I remember articles about how much faster the MLB game is on the infield that players from other leagues have a hard time adjusting. It was in reference to Tsuyoshi Nishioka from NPB breaking leg while turning 2 on slide from Nick Swisher.

OddBall Herrera
2 years ago
Reply to  Stoic Stathead

This is what I was thinking. The success rate on middle infielders coming from the KBO or NPB is pretty rotten. I’d try and be fair and say “For every Kaz Matsui there’s an X” but I can’t think of an X.

Lunch Anglemember
2 years ago

There just haven’t been many middle infielders coming from the KBO or NPB. Maybe for good reason, maybe just happenstance! There is Jung-ho Kang though, for two seasons he was a success.

2 years ago
Reply to  Lunch Angle

Jae-gyun Hwang was a 3B/SS, like Ha Seong Kim. Kang was exclusively a SS in KBO before switching mostly to 3B in MLB.
Then among the NPB players, you have Kaz Matsui. But also Tadahito Iguchi, Akinori Iwamura, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Munenori Kawasaki.

Ironically, Kaz Matsui is probably the most successful middle infield example of the bunch. Not a very successful sample…

2 years ago
Reply to  willl

Jung Ho Kang was almost 50/50 between SS and 3B as an MLB rookie.

Also worth mentioning that Iwamura was an above-average 2B until he blew out his knee (3.1 and 3.0 fWAR his first two years, and roughly on pace for 3 WAR in his injury year).