Putting KBO Players in an MLB Context

One of the world’s strongest professional baseball leagues, the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) starts their 2020 on May 5, bringing us high-level baseball in a world that’s currently experiencing a shortage. If you haven’t watched a KBO game, it’s a different atmosphere than MLB, one I would love to see MLB take a few cues from. The fans are loud, the bat flips are fierce, and players have customized theme songs.

And thankfully, it’s looking like American fans will get to see more of it. The KBO and ESPN are apparently close to a broadcast deal to televise KBO games on this side of the Pacific. (A deal had previously been reported as close, but fell through when ESPN wanted to give KBO no money up-front.)

For fans, there are a lot of new names to know. But even without indepth knowledge of the KBO, some will be vaguely familiar already, as Korea is one of the frequent landing spots for Triple-A journeymen to get a real opportunity to play highly competitive baseball at considerably more enticing salaries. To acclimate ourselves to what the talent levels are like in KBO, I fired up the ZiPS supercomputer to get the 2019 MLB translations for KBO players. After all, many fans understand baseball relative to MLB. That’s not to suggest that the KBO shouldn’t be enjoyed on its own terms; many of its difference from MLB are what make it so engaging. Next week we’ll have ZiPS projected standings and player projections put in a KBO-context for the league’s Opening Day.

A quick note: I’m using the English naming order, since that’s what Korean players have used when coming to the United States. We’ll start with the hitters:

ZiPS KBO Translations – 2019 Home Run Leaders
Player Age BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
ByungHo Park 32 .227 .323 .457 453 72 103 20 0 28 71 59 170 0
Jeong Choi 32 .250 .336 .444 525 76 131 27 0 25 75 52 134 2
Jamie Romak 33 .228 .303 .424 523 71 119 26 1 25 72 55 170 4
Jerry Sands 31 .259 .332 .461 545 80 141 36 1 24 83 58 147 1
Mel Rojas 29 .266 .314 .448 533 64 142 28 3 21 76 37 175 3
Darin Ruf 32 .250 .332 .441 492 68 123 33 2 19 73 60 127 4
Jae-il Oh 32 .247 .308 .428 481 63 119 28 1 19 71 41 144 1
Seong-yeol Lee 34 .208 .277 .390 428 52 89 19 1 19 58 36 166 5
Junwoo Jeon 33 .264 .310 .415 557 70 147 28 1 18 66 35 103 6
Jae-Gyun Hwang 31 .245 .304 .410 461 61 113 16 3 18 56 39 103 7
Ui-ji Yang 32 .314 .382 .505 404 60 127 26 0 17 58 36 63 3
Jared Hoying 30 .243 .288 .407 486 59 118 25 2 17 60 29 131 15
Ha-Seong Kim 23 .270 .337 .428 556 82 150 36 2 16 75 54 113 24
Sok-min Park 34 .227 .328 .401 379 50 86 16 1 16 51 49 100 1
Won-seok Lee 32 .209 .273 .373 407 44 85 19 0 16 51 32 106 1
Hyoung-woo Choi 35 .259 .349 .423 478 63 124 31 1 15 64 64 112 0
Kang-Nam Yoo 26 .231 .283 .388 428 46 99 22 0 15 46 23 118 0
Jose Miguel Fernandez 31 .310 .362 .442 588 79 182 36 0 14 72 46 79 1
Jae-hwan Kim 30 .235 .299 .374 511 61 120 19 5 14 63 47 164 2
Dae Ho Lee 37 .249 .305 .376 498 52 124 22 1 13 59 35 95 0
Ja-wook Koo 26 .229 .277 .386 485 54 111 25 6 13 56 29 127 8
Han-jun Yu 37 .280 .331 .391 514 60 144 19 1 12 60 39 89 2
Baek-ho Kang 19 .288 .357 .435 451 62 130 28 1 12 54 48 122 6
Hyeong-jong Lee 30 .246 .304 .390 431 50 106 24 1 12 50 32 113 4
Weun-Sung Chae 29 .276 .311 .387 478 54 132 18 1 11 53 18 97 1

You may recall the KBO as an offense-forward league, with run-scoring that surpassed even MLB. Your recall is correct but not current; the league dejuiced the baseballs before the 2019 season. Somehow, the KBO was able to identify ball construction issues and fix their out-of-control offense, something MLB has somehow been unable or unwilling to do despite owning the company that makes the league’s baseballs. The KBO’s home run rate dropped 40% from 2018-2019, giving the league an offensive look closer to 1980s MLB than 2010s MLB.

At the top of the home run list stands Byung Ho Park, who you at least ought to recognize from his brief stint with the Minnesota Twins. Park only hit .191/.275/.409 for the Twins, though he did so with power, thumping 12 homers in 62 games for Minnesota. One can argue that the .230 BABIP had a lot to do with those numbers; bump them by 30 points and a .221/.305/.439 line isn’t all that different from his .227/.323/.457 translation. Park may have simply had the bad luck to come to MLB at the wrong time in history, when non-elite slugging first baseman on the wrong side of 30 are no longer being highly valued.

After Jeong Choi, a third baseman who was rumored to be interested in coming to the United States five or six years ago — nothing came of it — come a few familiar names. Jerry Sands and Jamie Romak both briefly played in the majors; Sands played a little more and is remembered chiefly for being part of the massive Carl Crawford/Josh Beckett trade. Mel Rojas Jr., the son of longtime reliever Mel Rojas, signed in Korea during the 2017 season. Darin Ruf was a fringe prospect who had little chance of pushing Ryan Howard aside in Philadelphia and whose glove didn’t support a corner outfield position.

Most of the other home run leaders are in their 30s and unlikely to draw a ton of MLB interest as a result, but in the middle of the chart, there’s a big exception: the Kiwoom Heroes’ Ha-Seong Kim. Kim has wanted to try his hand at MLB and his team has agreed to post him after the 2020 season. Unlike most of the league, Kim showed little decline following the ball’s dejuicing, improving his OPS from .832 to .890. He was a 20/20 player at age 20 in 2016 and he plays shortstop. Given his age and position, I expect a record contract for a KBO free agent next year.

ZiPS KBO Translations – 2019 Batting Average Leaders
Player Age BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Ui-ji Yang 32 .314 .382 .505 404 60 127 26 0 17 58 36 63 3
Min-Woo Park 26 .311 .358 .399 479 64 149 23 8 1 44 31 58 13
Jose Miguel Fernandez 31 .310 .362 .442 588 79 182 36 0 14 72 46 79 1
Jung-hoo Lee 20 .307 .347 .420 584 74 179 31 10 5 61 35 56 10
Baek-ho Kang 19 .288 .357 .435 451 62 130 28 1 12 54 48 122 6
Geon-woo Park 28 .283 .346 .421 473 65 134 28 5 9 55 45 83 9
Han-jun Yu 37 .280 .331 .391 514 60 144 19 1 12 60 39 89 2
Weun-Sung Chae 29 .276 .311 .387 478 54 132 18 1 11 53 18 97 1
Jong-Wook Ko 30 .274 .294 .369 496 54 136 24 7 3 46 14 129 22
Hyun-Soo Kim 31 .274 .326 .400 540 65 148 38 0 10 63 41 76 2
Ha-Seong Kim 23 .270 .337 .428 556 82 150 36 2 16 75 54 113 24
Chun-Woong Lee 30 .269 .326 .335 561 67 151 25 3 2 43 43 119 15
Geon-chang Seo 29 .267 .324 .345 438 52 117 22 3 2 36 37 73 12
Mel Rojas 29 .266 .314 .448 533 64 142 28 3 21 76 37 175 3
Hun-Gon Kim 30 .266 .318 .347 421 47 112 20 1 4 37 28 60 7
Junwoo Jeon 33 .264 .310 .415 557 70 147 28 1 18 66 35 103 6
Kyeong-min Ho 28 .261 .310 .346 486 56 127 27 1 4 46 26 52 8
Hyoung-woo Choi 35 .259 .349 .423 478 63 124 31 1 15 64 64 112 0
Jerry Sands 31 .259 .332 .461 545 80 141 36 1 24 83 58 147 1
Tae-kyun Kim 37 .256 .318 .343 446 47 114 21 0 6 43 41 137 2
Ahseop Son 31 .251 .303 .339 525 60 132 20 1 8 47 39 134 9
Darin Ruf 32 .250 .332 .441 492 68 123 33 2 19 73 60 127 4
Jeong Choi 32 .250 .336 .444 525 76 131 27 0 25 75 52 134 2
Dae Ho Lee 37 .249 .305 .376 498 52 124 22 1 13 59 35 95 0
Min-hyeok Kim 23 .248 .297 .274 475 50 118 10 1 0 27 25 86 16
Jae-il Oh 32 .247 .308 .428 481 63 119 28 1 19 71 41 144 1

Min-Woo Park never hit for much power, so he practically shrugged off the change to the baseball. Park profiles a bit like a larger Nick Madrigal, but in today’s (tomorrow’s?) MLB game, there’s a very thin margin of error for a player like that to succeed. A former Dodgers’ signing out of Cuba, José Miguel Fernández never found a position he could be counted on to play in the majors, but when counted on solely for his bat, fared very well in his first season in Korea, hitting .344/.409/.483 for the Doosan Bears.

After Fernández come the 2017 and 2018 KBO Rookie of the Year winners, Jung-hoo Lee and Baek-ho Kang. A two-way star as a prospect, there was some buzz that Kang, who has hit the mid-90s with his fastball, would play both sides in KBO, but the KT Wiz decided it was too risky. Debuting at 18, Jung-hoo Lee has hit .338/.397/.449 in his three seasons and can play a respectable centerfield. He doesn’t turn 22 until August, so he’s another name to look at long-term. Let’s turn our attention now to the pitchers:

ZiPS KBO Translations – 2019 ERA Leaders
Player Age W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO HBP
Hyeon-jong Yang 31 16 8 3.20 29 29 180.0 175 64 15 43 163 10
Angel Sanchez 29 15 7 3.23 28 28 161.7 155 58 15 54 148 9
Casey Kelly 29 15 11 3.77 29 29 174.3 178 73 13 53 126 10
Kwang-hyun Kim 30 13 10 3.79 31 30 187.7 201 79 22 49 180 10
Jake Brigham 31 10 8 3.79 28 28 154.3 154 65 15 59 130 9
Josh Lindblom 32 13 10 3.84 30 30 187.7 183 80 24 37 189 10
Won-tae Choi 22 9 7 3.86 27 27 156.3 167 67 15 45 109 8
Tyler Wilson 29 12 9 3.91 30 30 179.3 183 78 13 57 137 10
Eric Jokisch 29 12 10 4.05 30 30 175.7 179 79 15 50 141 10
Seth Frankoff 30 9 8 4.07 22 22 115.0 113 52 12 39 111 6
Warwick Saupold 29 11 12 4.37 31 31 187.3 199 91 15 70 135 11
Jin-woo Park 29 8 8 4.42 41 18 136.3 148 67 15 37 92 8
Young-ha Lee 21 10 11 4.46 29 27 157.3 162 78 13 76 94 9
Jae-hak Lee 28 6 8 4.55 24 23 126.7 136 64 10 55 91 7
Jae-sung Bae 22 9 11 4.60 28 21 129.0 135 66 10 69 95 7
Drew Rucinski 30 8 10 4.61 30 30 169.7 181 87 22 58 119 10
Hui-gwan Yu 33 9 10 4.65 28 27 160.7 184 83 15 54 64 9
Chang-mo Koo 22 8 9 4.68 23 19 102.0 95 53 16 51 119 6
Brooks Raley 31 8 11 4.72 30 30 177.3 193 93 17 84 140 10
Raul Alcantara 26 9 13 5.05 27 27 169.3 198 95 25 35 101 9
Chad Bell 30 8 13 5.15 29 29 169.7 182 97 26 81 134 10
Chae-heung Choi 24 4 8 5.38 28 15 107.0 122 64 17 45 91 6
Jong-hoon Park 27 7 12 5.40 28 28 140.0 160 84 20 76 100 8
William Cuevas 28 8 15 5.42 30 30 172.7 178 104 31 81 135 10
Seung-ho Lee 20 5 8 5.46 23 23 120.3 136 73 16 63 85 7

Both MLB and NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) have long had an interest in top Korean players and this offseason was no exception. Kwang Hyun Kim signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals back in December. Josh Lindblom previously had a bit of success in MLB as a reliever; he returned to the US this winter on a three-year contract with the Brewers. Former Dodgers prospect Angel Sánchez signed with the Yomiuri Giants after allowing an absurdly low two homers in 165 innings pitched.

Hyeon-jong Yang has long been rumored to be coming to MLB, but the KIA Tigers rejected the winning bid when he was posted in 2014. As our old friend and FanGraphs alum Sung Min Kim (now with the Lotte Giants) reported, MLB teams were still checking in on him in 2017.

ZiPS KBO Translations – 2019 K/9 Leaders
Player Age W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO K/9
Hyo-jun Ko 36 3 6 5.70 75 0 60.0 58 38 10 46 72 10.8
Woo-suk Ko 20 6 4 3.78 65 0 66.7 57 28 7 37 79 10.7
Jin-yong Seo 26 3 1 3.29 72 0 65.7 56 24 3 36 77 10.6
Jae-Hwan Bae 24 4 4 4.58 62 0 53.0 48 27 5 39 62 10.5
Chang-mo Koo 22 8 9 4.68 23 19 102.0 95 53 16 51 119 10.5
Jae-Hoon Ha 28 5 3 3.16 61 0 57.0 49 20 2 33 64 10.1
Tae-hun Kim 29 5 4 4.24 71 0 68.0 63 32 7 33 76 10.1
Sang-hyeon Jeon 23 3 2 3.90 57 0 57.7 51 25 5 26 64 10.0
Sang-soo Kim 31 4 4 4.28 67 0 54.7 51 26 5 36 60 9.9
Henry Sosa 33 4 8 6.07 16 16 89.0 97 60 25 30 96 9.7
Ben Lively 27 4 4 4.23 9 9 55.3 54 26 7 17 58 9.4
Si-young Park 30 1 1 5.25 43 6 58.3 57 34 8 35 60 9.3
Jake Thompson 25 2 3 4.77 11 11 60.3 58 32 7 29 61 9.1
Josh Lindblom 32 13 10 3.84 30 30 187.7 183 80 24 37 189 9.1
Jun-young Ha 19 3 5 5.64 59 0 52.7 55 33 8 38 53 9.1
Sang-Woo Cho 24 4 2 3.64 48 0 47.0 46 19 5 10 47 9.0
Deok-Joo Ham 24 2 5 6.61 61 0 49.0 50 36 11 43 49 9.0
Jae Yun Kim 28 2 2 4.68 43 0 42.3 41 22 7 15 42 8.9
Jong-hyeon Won 31 3 3 4.37 60 0 59.7 61 29 7 22 59 8.9
Tae-yang Lee 28 2 5 6.00 55 1 66.0 74 44 15 17 64 8.7
Seth Frankoff 30 9 8 4.07 22 22 115.0 113 52 12 39 111 8.7
Justin Haley 28 5 8 5.15 19 19 87.3 90 50 9 44 84 8.7
Kwang-hyun Kim 30 13 10 3.79 31 30 187.7 201 79 22 49 180 8.6
Hyeon-Sik Jang 24 2 7 6.88 53 0 52.3 61 40 15 29 50 8.6
Kyong-chan Moon 26 2 1 3.06 54 0 53.0 50 18 3 13 50 8.5

At the top of the K/9 lists stands Hyo-jun Ko, who unfortunately is best known for what was likely the worst wild pitch in professional baseball history.

Jae-Hoon Ha is someone deep-dive prospect watchers may remember from his stint as a Cubs prospect a decade ago. As an outfield prospect, his bat never got him past Triple-A and he struggled in a part-time role for the Yakult Swallows. Ha, still able to throw into the mid-90s, got a shot for the SK Wyverns after two years out of organized professional baseball (the KBO has a two-year probationary period for Korean players who never played with KBO). Ha ended up saving 36 games for the Wyverns in 2019 with an ERA of 1.98.

We hoped you liked reading Putting KBO Players in an MLB Context by Dan Szymborski!

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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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Patrick Flaherty
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Patrick Flaherty

Casey Kelly was a as a standout two way draft pick. I think was told his path to the majors was faster pitching than short stop about a year in. Filthy filthy changeup. He was paired with Anthony Rizzo as part of the of the Adrian Gonzalez to Boston trade, and if I remember right, had tj about a year later. The hype was strong with him, I remember ditching work to watch him throw against north eastern in a televised spring training game while he was still with the sox. He throws harder now than when he was stateside. I’ll totally tune in when he pitches. I already went down a youtube rabbit hole of his starts from last year.