Slugging It Out in South Korea: The Best Foreign Hitters in KBO History — 2016 Update
The 2016 KBO regular season has ended, so it’s time to update last year’s post on the best foreign hitters in the KBO’s history. KBO only began allowing foreign players in 1998, and it’s is a young league, starting play only in 1982. What that means is that the records for foreign players are very much in play.
Initially, KBO teams brought in mostly hitters; and the foreigners, at least at first, hit a lot of home runs. As the league improved, KBO teams began to realize in the second half of the 2000’s that North American pitchers were worth more to them than the hitters. So much so that by 2012 and 2013, there were no foreign hitters in the league at all.
KBO teams expanded the roster space for foreigners from two to three in 2014 (four for the expansion KT Wiz) with the requirement that one of the three be a position player/hitter. Foreign hitters have been back in the league the last three seasons and have fully taken advantage of an extreme hitters’ league. However, most of them have not yet been in the league long enough to challenge the foreign player records set in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Batting Average (2,000 at-bats)
Jay Davis .313
Jay Davis 979
Jay Davis had far and away the best career of any foreign hitter in the KBO, with Tyrone Woods as the only other player in the conversation.
The problem is that very few foreigners have had long careers in the KBO. Until the last few years, when increased revenues made bigger salaries possible, the foreigners who played in KBO were clearly a cut below the foreign players who signed with Japanese NPB teams. They tended not to maintain their initial KBO performance levels for long — three full seasons was a long KBO career for a foreigner — or they moved on to greener NPB pastures. NPB still offers greener pastures for the best KBO players, as NPB teams simply can offer bigger salaries based on greater revenue streams than KBO teams can.
Tyrone Woods 174
Jay Davis 167
Eric Thames 124
Cliff Brumbaugh 116
Tilson Brito 112
Karim Garcia 103
Felix Jose 95
In the early days (late 1990’s and early 2000’s), KBO teams paid foreigners to hit home runs. The most prolific was Tyrone Woods, who blasted 174 dingers over five KBO seaons and then moved on to the NPB, where he blasted 240 HRs in six seasons. Woods never played even one game in the major leagues, and there are some reasons to believe that PEDs may have had something to do with his tremendous Asian performance, at least by the time he reached NPB.
Eric Thames is the best of the hitters to join the KBO since the foreign player roster expansion in 2014, and he’s averaged more than 40 home runs per year in his three KBO seasons. My guess is that Thames returns to MLB (he’s already a proven MLB hitter with a .727 OPS in 684 career plate appearances) or joins Japan’s NPB in 2017 (the Hanshin Tigers reportedly have great interest).
Thames can earn more in either place (his reported 2-year $3 million KBO deal which ends this year is about as high as it gets for a foreign player), and he also ended the 2016 KBO season suspended for the last eight regular season games and the first play-off game, after being arrested for a DUI. His blood alcohol level reportedly tested at .056, which would be legal in California (.08), but not in South Korea where the cut-off is .050. If I were an MLB or NPB general manager, I would not be particularly concerned about the incident, unless, of course, it happens again.
Cliff Brumbaugh played briefly for the Rangers and Rockies in 2001 before starting a successful seven year career in South Korea and Japan. You probably remember Karim Garcia and Felix Jose, who both had significant major leagues careers, and you may remember Tilson Brito, who played in 92 MLB games in 1996-1997 for the Blue Jays and the A’s.
Jay Davis 538
Jay Davis 591
Tyrone Woods 510
As you can see from the above numbers, the KBO records for foreign hitters are ready to be broken in all categories, because so relatively little has been accomplished by foreign hitters to date. It’s mainly a matter of whether any of the post-2014 crop of foreign hitters hangs around lot enough to add their names to the above list in a few more years’ time.
Assuming that Eric Thames does, in fact, leave, one good bet to make the lists one day is former San Francisco Giants’ prospect Brett Pill, who has been remarkably consistent in his three year KBO career. He’s played well enough to keep being invited back, at least so long as his salary demands are reasonable, but not so well that he’s likely to return to MLB or move up to NPB.