I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
Who Are The Greatest MLB Players From Korea?
South Korea has not produced a wealth of Major League Baseball talent like nearby Japan, but there are definitely a handful of players from the Asian country worth remembering. The first Korean player to play in a Major League game was Chan Ho Park in 1994, and there have been about two dozen additional followers to reach the Big Leagues. Many Korean-born Major Leaguers have come to America as amateur free agents, but the Korean Baseball Organization does have a posting agreement with MLB that gives veterans of the KBO opportunities to play in the United States. Only three players to make the Majors have ever gone through the posting system, the first coming in 2012.
The top international free agent during the 2020 off-season was 25-year-old Korean star He-seong Kim, who signed with the San Diego Padres for four years and $25 million. He was a star in Korea since age 18 and hit 30 homers in 2019.
In this article, I'll count down the five best players to transition from Korean baseball to Major League Baseball. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments!
5. Jung-Ho Kang
- Birthplace: Gwangju, Gwangju
- KBO Years Played: 2006–14
- MLB Years Played: 2015–16, 2018–19
- Path to MLB: Posting system (2014, Pittsburgh Pirates for $5,002,015)
- Position: Third base/Shortstop
Among the most highly touted players to come out of Korea was Jung-Ho Kang, who hit 40 home runs and posted a .356 during the KBO season before he was posted to the Major Leagues. He came to the Pittsburgh Pirates on a four-year deal worth $11 million, but never lived up to the promise of his Korean stats (career marks of .298 and 139 home runs over nine seasons), despite high marks upon arrival.
"We like everything we've seen," manager Clint Hurdle said in February 2015. "We like the ability to drive the ball. We like the ability to create some lift for the ball to carry. We believe he'll be a run-scorer, a run-producer" (Brink, 2015).
Kang, however, encountered several off-the-field issues that hampered what was starting to look like it may become a solid career. He finished third in 2015 National League Rookie of the Year voting, but his season was cut a few weeks short after suffering a knee injury that lingered into the next year. Still, he hit a career-high 21 homers in 2016, despite appearing in just 103 games. A DUI arrest in Korea during the offseason, however, caused his visa to be revoked, so he missed the entire 2017 season and only played 68 games over the next two years. In his career, Kang hit .254 with 46 home runs and 146 RBI in 297 career games.
4. Byung-Hyun Kim
- Birthplace: Incheon, Incheon
- KBO Years Played: 1999–2007
- KBO Years Played: 2012–15
- Path to MLB: Signed as an amateur free agent (1999, Arizona Diamondbacks for $2.05 million)
- Position: Pitcher
- MLB Accolades: World Series champion (2001, Arizona Diamondbacks), All-Star (2002)
Byung-Hyun Kim is arguably best-known for one of the toughest stretches of his career, but when looking at his career in its entirety, he was one of the most productive Korean players in history. Kim blew save chances in both Games 4 and 5 of the 2001 World Series, but his Arizona Diamondbacks clawed their way to a seven-game series victory over the New York Yankees. That left Kim as the first Asian-born player to win a World Series championship. Not bad for a young kid who came to America just two years earlier with nothing but a side-winding delivery and hype about his pitching ability.
"He didn't throw too many strikes, but his ball moves all over. His ball could rise, sink," said catcher Damian Miller, who caught Kim's first bullpen session. "He's got big-league stuff. Definitely" (Magruder, 1999).
Kim enjoyed a nine-year career as both a starter and a reliever. He appeared in 394 games (87 starts) and recorded 86 saves. He enjoyed his best season in 2002, making his only All-Star team and finishing the year with a career-high 36 saves and a career-low 2.04 earned-run average for the Diamondbacks. After leaving MLB, Kim eventually played in his native KBO, but struggled in his four seasons. Kim went 11–23 with a 6.19 ERA in 78 games.
3. Hyun-Jin Ryu
- Birthplace: Incheon, Incheon
- KBO Years Played: 2006–12
- MLB Years Played: 2013–14, 2016–present
- Path to MLB: Posting system (2012, Los Angeles Dodgers for $25,737,737.33)
- Position: Starting pitcher
- MLB Accolades: All-Star (2019)
Hyun-Jin Ryu made history when he came to Major League Baseball. Ryu was the first veteran of the KBO to come directly to MLB, and he did so at a record price—more than $25 million for negotiating rights and an initial contract worth $36 million. Both figures paid out by the Los Angeles Dodgers are records for Korean-born players. To his credit, he has mostly delivered, though not quite to the tune of the five strikeout crowns and 2.80 career ERA he had posted in the KBO.
"Everybody says you don't know, but you have to invest, you have to take a chance," said Dodgers part-owner Magic Johnson when Ryu was introduced by the team. "Scouts tell us he's the real deal, we have to believe that ... we have to go for it" (Plaschke, 2012).
Ryu had 14 wins in each of his first two seasons with the Dodgers but missed the entire 2015 season after shoulder surgery. After returning in 2016, he suffered an elbow ailment that required surgery, and following a fast start in 2018, a groin injury pushed him back to the disabled list. In total in 2018, though, he was 7–3 with a 1.97 ERA and became the first Korean-born pitcher to start a World Series game. Ryu made his first All-Star team in 2019 and was the runner-up in Cy Young balloting after going 14–5 with a league-low 2.32 ERA. After signing with the Toronto Blue Jays, Ryu went 5–2 with a 2.69 ERA in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 campaign. He has three years remaining on his $80 million contract.
2. Chan Ho Park
- Birthplace: Gongju, South Chungcheong
- MLB Years Played: 1994–2010
- KBO Years Played: 2012
- Path to MLB: Signed as an amaeteur free agent (1994, Los Angeles Dodgers for $1.2 million)
- Position: Starting pitcher
- MLB Accolades: All-Star (2001)
Chan-Ho Park became the first Korean-born player in Major League Baseball after debuting on April 8, 1994, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that was beginning of a lengthy career. It took a couple of seasons for him to find a groove (he only pitched four innings in each of his first two seasons), but once he did, he became a solid regular in the Dodgers rotation. Still, the city and league were sizzling with excitement at what Park would bring to America when he signed as a 20-year-old with a fastball in the mid-90s.
"He looks like he's in midseason form," said teammate Dave Hansen after facing Park in a batting practice session in February 1994. "If he's not in midseason form, I'd hate to see him when he is" (AP, 1994).
Park is the winningest Asian-born pitcher in Major League history (124), but also holds the dubious record of being the only pitcher ever to allow two grand slams in the same inning (both to Fernando Tatis Sr. in 1999). He posted a 124–98 record throughout a 17-year career, and Park added a 4.36 ERA and 1,715 strikeouts. He was an All-Star in 2001, and later that year, Park surrendered the 71st home run of the season to Barry Bonds, which broke Mark McGwire's single-season record that had been set in 1998. Following his MLB career, he played one season in Japan and one season in the KBO, where he went 5–10 with a 5.06 ERA at age 39.
1. Shin-Soo Choo
- Birthplace: Busan, Busan
- MLB Years Played: 2005–20
- Path to MLB: Amateur free agent (2000, Seattle Mariners for $1.35 million)
- Position: Outfield
- MLB Accolades: All-Star (2018)
Shin-Soo Choo was a prominent amateur pitcher in Korea before signing with the Seattle Mariners as an outfielder. The day he signed his MLB contract, he was a key pitcher in South Korea's championship victory over the United States in the World Junior AAA Championships. Choo was MVP of the championship series after striking out 33 hitters over 20 2/3 innings in six appearances. While disappointed he wouldn't be pitching in the Major Leagues, Choo said at the time, "you've got to go as you're called" (Cowley, 2000). And that actually worked out pretty well for him as the greatest MLB player to ever come out of Korea.
Choo enjoyed a 15-year career, and while he has been a solid player for several teams, he's only made one All-Star team (2018). That's despite posting three separate seasons with at least 20 home runs, 20 steals and a .285 average. He's easily the most accomplished offensive player to come out of Korea with career marks so far of a .275 average with 218 home runs, 782 RBI and 961 runs. He's had some bouts with injuries, but has proven durable by playing in at least 144 games in eight of his 12 full seasons.
In 2013, Choo became the first Korean-born player to hit a home run in the postseason, and in 2015, he became the first Asian-born player to hit for the cycle. Choo signed with the SK Wyverns of the KBO for the 2021 season after playing out his seven-year, $130 million contract with the Rangers. He is one of just four offensive players from Korea to ever take 1,000 plate appearances, and with 7,157 in his career, Choo is the only one of them to come to bat more than 1,100 times.
While the best baseball players ever to come out of Korea were featured above, I've listed a couple of more who deserve mention.
The first Korean-born position player to appear in a Major League game was Hee-Seop Choi, but he never quite lived up to his billing as a hyped prospect. Choi was expected to be a heavy hitter, but his career-high for home runs in a season was just 15. Choi hit 40 homers over four seasons, but appeared in just 363 games from 2002–05. After leaving MLB, Choi spent eight seasons in the KBO and smacked 100 home runs.
Though he has been well-traveled in his five-year career, Ji-Man Choi is one of the better offensive players to come out of Korea. He settled into an offensive groove when he joined the Rays in 2019, and helped them reach the World Series in 2020. He became the first Korean-born player to record a hit in the Fall Classic with a single in Game 2, but Tampa Bay lost to the Dodgers. So far in his career, Choi has hit .245 with 39 home runs for four teams.
Associated Press. "Rookie hurler Park impressing Dodgers." The Californian. Feb. 25, 1994. Page B-3.
Brink, Bill. "Jung Ho Kang begins transition to Pirates, MLB." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Feb. 23, 2015. Post-Gazette.com.
Cowley, Norm. "S. Korea survives marathon to catch gold." Edmonton Journal. Aug. 14, 2000. Page D2.
Magruder, Jack. "Korean pitcher impresses D'backs." Arizona Daily Star. March 30, 1999. Page D1.
Plaschke, Bill. "Dodgers take big gamble on Ryu." Los Angeles Times. Dec. 11, 2012. Pages C1–C5.
© 2020 Andrew Harner