By Coop Daley
Major League Baseball (MLB) continues to prove itself as a true international league, with stars from Japan, the Dominican Republic, and even South Korea, among many other countries. The 2020 season, although unique in its status during the COVID-19 pandemic, was a great display of this international status, especially for South Korea, as the country’s Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Toronto Blue Jays was named an American League Cy Young finalist and first baseman Ji-Man Choi had an impressive postseason performance for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Although South Korea is quickly becoming more known as a prominent baseball country, there have only been 22 Korean MLB players, and only a select few have become true stars. With this in mind, we took a look at the list of players and found what we believe to be the best South Korean MLB players.
Chan Ho Park
The first player on our list was also a first for South Korea: Chan Ho Park, a pitcher who earned an All-Star berth with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2001 and was the first South Korean player to play in MLB. Park, who was scouted out of high school for his performance on the 1992 and 1993 national baseball teams, was signed directly out of Hanyang University by the Dodgers.
After debuting in Los Angeles in 1994, Park would become a star starting in 1997, with a team-best record of 14-8. It was the first of five consecutive double-digit win seasons for Park, with his career best coming in 2000 with a record of 18-10; he was also second in the league in strikeouts (217) and opposing batting average (.214). He would be named All-Star in 2001, and signed a five-year, $65 million contract with the Texas Rangers in 2002, a large contract for pitchers at the time.
While Park is currently the all-time leader in wins for Asian-born pitchers with 124, he also has a few unique places in the MLB record books. He gave up Barry Bonds’ record-breaking 71st and 72nd home runs during the 2001 season, and was also on the mound when Fernando Tatis became the first player to hit two grand slams in the same inning. Beyond the oddities, however, Park was a fantastic pitcher that dealt both as a starter and out of the bullpen over sixteen MLB seasons.
First from South Korea. First for Asian-born pitchers. And first on our list.
The only player on our official list who first played in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), Hyun-jin Ryu has been a standout pitcher over his seven MLB seasons, with a dominant change-up and succinct ability to keep balls in the strike zone.
Before coming to MLB, Ryu was a star for the Hanwha Eagles. In just his first season, Ryu won the pitching Triple Crown and was named Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year; he’s the only player in KBO history to do so. He also helped South Korea win the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, pitching 8.1 innings in the gold medal match.
He was posted to MLB teams by the Eagles in 2012, and the Dodgers offered an astounding winning bid of $25.7 million before signing Ryu to a six-year, $36 million dollar contract. Ryu became a star for the Dodgers, going 54-33 and setting records, including being the first Korean pitcher to start a World Series game in 2018. His best campaign was in 2019, where he led MLB-pitchers with a 2.32 ERA, was named starting pitcher in the MLB All-Star game and posted a 14-5 record; he was named second in National League Cy Young voting.
Now the ace of the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching staff, Ryu finished third in American League Cy Young voting, and will look to continue his amazing prowess for years to come.
Although he’s known for his less-than-optimal performance against the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, sidewinder Byung-hyun Kim was a dominant closer for the Arizona Diamondbacks in his prime, notching 36 saves in 2002, and contributed significantly to the 2003 Red Sox team that made the playoffs.
Scouted out of high school, Kim was named both the Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Pitcher in the 1996 High School Championships in South Korea, and played for the national teams in various tournaments. He was signed by the Diamondbacks in 1999, and was the youngest player in MLB when he debuted with a bang, striking out Mike Piazza to earn the save at Shea Stadium.
It was the first of many, as after regular closer Matt Mantei went down with injury to start the 2000 season, Kim became the de facto closer. He struck out 111 batters over 70.2 innings and performed admirably until Mantei came back. The following year, Kim had a postseason to remember, as he recorded three saves and a 0.00 ERA to help the Diamondbacks capture the pennant. While he was the first Korean (and Asian-born) player to play in and win the World Series, Kim would unfortunately give up critical tying hits in the ninth inning of Games 4 and 5. Arizona still won the championship, and Kim returned to form in 2002, recording 36 saves and being named a National League All-Star.
At the 2003 trade deadline, the Diamondbacks traded Kim to the Boston Red Sox, where he played a critical role in getting the Red Sox into the playoffs; he recorded 16 saves over 19 opportunities and didn’t allow a run in September, all while fighting lingering injuries in his ankle and shoulder. He gave it all for the team, but injuries would hamper him for the rest of his career, and never returned to the beastly form he took on in the desert.
One of the only non-pitchers on our list, Shin-Soo Choo has been a model of consistency and power over the past sixteen seasons, with his accomplishments truly coming to light in recent years.
Signed by the Seattle Mariners in 2004, Choo got his first big league time after being traded to the Cleveland Indians in 2006, where he became one of the best contact hitters in the league; between 2009 and 2012, he recorded 590 hits and 279 RBI, and received MVP votes in 2010. After a stellar season with the Cincinnati Reds, he signed a seven-year, $130 million contract with the Texas Rangers, where he became a key piece of their core.
His best season came in 2018, when he was named an All-Star for the first time, and got on base in 52 straight games, a Rangers’ team record; he also notched 148 hits and whacked 21 home runs. He also hit his 176th home run, passing Hideki Matsui for the most MLB home runs hit by an Asian-born player.
He’s also a great player off the field. In 2020, during the cancellation of the minor league seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Choo donated $1000 to each member of the Rangers’ minor league system, a contribution of generosity and love of baseball.
Rising Stars: Ji-man Choi and Kwang-hyun Kim
Although these players don’t quite make our list, they deserve recognition for being two of the best unproven stars in the game, with the potential to make it later on.
First is a name that many baseball fans will recognize: Ji-man Choi. The Tampa Bay Rays’ first baseman has become a fan favorite in the sunshine state for his on-field performance and abilities, with the Los Angeles Times noting that his defense reflects his “Gumby-like” ability to stretch. He’s also not bad with the bat, as he had 107 hits and 63 RBI in 2019; in addition, he became the first South Korean to record a hit in the World Series in Game 3 of the 2020 Fall Classic. With his stellar abilities and hard work ethic, combined with an affable personality, Choi may become a star for years to come.
Another young star that may have eluded attention from fans this year is Kwang-hyun Kim, a rookie pitcher for the St Louis Cardinals. After a thirteen-year career in the KBO with the SK Wyverns, Kim was posted to MLB clubs and selected by the Cardinals for $1.6 million, and subsequently signed with the Cardinals for two years, $11 million. Although he only started seven games in the shortened 2020 campaign, he turned heads for a low 1.62 ERA, winning three games and losing none. With a legendary campaign in the KBO behind him, it’s possible Kim could become one of the most dominant pitchers in two leagues.
Keep your eyes on these two Korean stars; they’ll be fun to watch in 2021.