Top KBO Hitting Prospects 2014

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post on the top pitching prospects who might come out of South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization (“KBO”), so now it’s time for a review of the top young hitters who may one day leave the KBO for greener pastures.

1.  Byung-ho Park (age 27 in 2014) Nexen Heroes.  Park is not only the best young hitter in the KBO but the KBO’s best hitter period.  A 1Bman, he was named the KBO’s MVP this year for the second year in a row, leading the league in home runs and RBIs in 2013 as he did in 2012.  He hit .318 this year and blasted 37 HRs, six more than he hit in 2012.  He finished first in slugging percentage (.602) and second in on-base percentage (.437).

The main questions with Park at this point are whether he’s already reached his peak performance level and how he now compares to past top Korean sluggers who went on to success abroad.  With respect to the first question, Park first played in the KBO’s championship league (South Korea’s “major” league) in 2005 at age 18, but he didn’t develop into a great, or even a good, hitter until 2012 at age 25.  He’s always had power, but until 2012 he struck out way too much.  He also lost two seasons to military service in 2007 and 2008.

Starting in 2012, Park apparently finally learned to lay off pitches out of the strike zone.  He hit .290 that season, 36 points higher than his previous high set the year before, he struck out less and he walked more.  His batting average jumped another 28 points in 2013 and his walk and strikeout rates again improved dramatically.

If Park improves as much in 2014 as he did in 2013, he’ll be comparable to where Seung Yeop Lee and Dae Ho Lee were as hitters before leaving the KBO to start successful careers in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (“NPB”).  That may be asking a lot, however, given how much he’s improved already in just the last two years.  Even if he has already reached his peak, it’s likely he’ll move on to NPB at some point in the future.

2. Jeong Choi (27) SK Wyverns.  The young 3Bman was the second best hitter in the KBO in 2013, batting .316, finishing third in HRs (28), second in slugging percentage (.551) and third in on-base percentage (.429).

Like Park, Choi reached the KBO championship league in 2005 at age 18, but unlike Park his career progression is more typical, having early success and slow, but steady, improvement thereafter.  Park batted .328 in 2008 at age 21.  Between 2010 and 2012, he batted .300, .310 and .300 and slugged 20, 20 and 26 home runs.  2013 was his best season to date, although he struck out more often this past season than at any time since his rookie year in 2006.

3. Ah-Seop Son (26) Lotte Giants.  At age 25 in 2013, Son finished second in batting with a .345 average, the fourth year in row he’s hit better than .300.  Son led the KBO in hits with 172 and finished fifth with a .421 on-base percentage.  Son doesn’t have great power, but he’s hit 15, 11 and 11 in his three best seasons.  He plays the corner outfield positions and appears to have a good throwing arm based on the limited defensive stats I could find for him.

I ranked Son this high because of his age and the fact that I think the first position player to jump successfully from the KBO to MLB will be a high on-base percentage guy like Ichiro Suzuki, Norichicka Aoki. or Shin-soo Choo (a South Korean who never played in KBO).

4.  Hyun-soo Kim (26) Doosan Bears.  A few years ago, Kim, a left-fielder, looked like he was going to be the next KBO superstar.  In 2009 and 2010 at ages 21 and 22, he hit .357 and .317 with 23 and 24 home runs.  However, he regressed sharply in each of 2011 and 2012.

In 2013, Kim bounced about half of the way back to where he was in 2010.  He hit .302 and slugged 16 HRs.  His .852 OPS was 11th best in the KBO.

5.  Jung-ho Kang (27) Nexen Heroes.   The best hitting young shortstop in the KBO, Kang batted .291 and slugged 22 HRs in 2013.  His .876 OPS was eighth best in the KBO.

Kang has hit .300 or better twice in his six year KBO career and has blasted 25 and 23 HRs in his two best seasons.  As a shortstop, he should probably rank higher on this list, but I don’t know anything about his defensive abilities.

6.  Suk-min Park (29) Samsung Lions.  A 3Bman, Park’s .940 OPS was third best in the KBO this past season.  Park has hit better than .300 three times in his six-year KBO career and slugged 24, 23 and 18 HRs in his three best seasons.  Unfortunately, Park isn’t particularly young and will probably remain in the KBO for that reason.

7.  Min-ho Kang (28) Lotte Giants.  The KBO’s best hitting young catcher, Kang just re-signed with the Lotte Giants for a record-setting four-year 7.5 billion won contract (roughly $7 million).  Kang was already showing the effects of a nine year career as an every-day catcher in 2013, and I think it’s unlikely Kang will leave the KBO when his new contract expires.

To my surprise I wasn’t able to find any hitters younger than 25 among the KBO’s top hitters in 2013.   I think it’s mostly a one-year fluke, given that a number of players listed above had big seasons with the bat before age 25.  However, it may also have something to do with the fact that young South Korean men are required to provide two years of military service.  For example, both Byung-ho Park and and Suk-min Park lost two years of their early professional development to military service, although both likely played baseball at a high level during their service time on military teams.

Aside from delaying their professional development, military service also means that many players are well past 30 by the time they reach their free agency after nine years of KBO championship league service.  While that’s tough for the players, it probably benefits both the KBO and South Korean baseball fans by making it less likely that the best South Korean players will leave for Japan’s NPB (or in the not-so-distant future MLB).

At any rate, some young players who hit well in the KBO last year are Woo-ram Moon (age 22 in 2014, Nexen Heroes), Kyung-min Heo (23, Doosan Bears), Hyung-sik Jung (23, Samsung Lions), Soo-bin Jung (23, Doosan Bears), Dong-min Han (24, SK Wyverns), Sang-soo Kim (24, Samsung Lions), Sun-bin Kim (24, Kia Tigers), Gun-chang Seo (24, Nexen Heroes), Ji-hwan Oh (24, LG Twins) and Min-sung Kim (25, Nexen Heroes).

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