Foreign Players in the KBO: What the Future Holds

Eric Thames enjoyed a lot of success when he played in the Korea Baseball Organization. (via taysomhillfan)

Once again, the KBO season came to a close with a Doosan Bears victory — their third in the last five years. The past few postseasons have been a replay of sorts: a battle royale of mediocre teams only for the survivor to be crushed by a predetermined champion, the Korean equivalent to the 1950s New York Yankees. This year’s challengers, the fan-favorite underdog Kiwoom Heroes, were mercilessly swept in four games to provide yet another sacrifice for the insatiable Bears. But the anticlimactic ending to the 2019 season notwithstanding, the ensuing offseason signals hope and promise for weary fans as teams ready free-agent signings, contract negotiations, and trades. 

This is all standard for the major leagues as well, but one big difference exists: the free agency of foreign players. Teams can sign up to three foreign players from international leagues for a budget; theoretically, they could sign Mike Trout if they could persuade him to sign for less than $1 million. Many believe such foreign players could make or break a team, as good signings would typically yield a cleanup bat and a solid one-two punch in the rotation. 

For example, much of Doosan’s success was attributed to Josh Lindblom, a perennial All-Star who won the MVP last year. Recently acquired by the Milwaukee Brewers, he joins Eric Thames and Merrill Kelly as foreign players who are pioneering the changing trend in the KBO. 

The Transition of Foreign Players in the KBO

The foreign player draft was first adopted by the KBO in 1998 despite strong opposition from players, who felt that their jobs would be threatened by a steady influx of Triple-A-level talent. Many argued teams eventually would opt to replace domestic players with cheap minor leaguers to cut costs. 

However, the KBO was adamant a draft was necessary for Korean baseball to be competitive on a global level. They also were pressured by the fact that the Korean soccer and basketball leagues (both significantly less popular than their baseball counterpart) had adopted foreign players in the league before them. Eager to maintain its monopoly over the South Korean sports market, the KBO relatively easily bulldozed over the concerns of the then-unionless players to initiate the first foreign player draft. 

The draft took place after a tryout session at the end of the 1997 season. Based on the teams’ aggregate performance over the past three years, seven of the eight existing KBO teams at the time selected 12 former major and minor leaguers to pioneer the first foreign presence in the fledgling league. Now, these players were not the former major league All-Stars or struggling first- and second-round prospects Korean baseball fans have come to expect. With a salary cap set at a maximum $300,000 per year, teams struggled to find players who even sniffed the doorsteps of the big leagues. Out of the 12 players drafted, only four had any major league experience. Jose Parra, a journeyman reliever with a career ERA of 6.09 over 82 games, was touted as an accomplished, veteran pitcher with “extensive” major league experience. 

The salary cap wasn’t the only reason teams struggled to find foreign talent. The KBO league at its infancy largely was overshadowed by the Japanese Baseball League, which offered more money and better infrastructure. Foreign players looked down on the level and quality of the league. Shawn Hare, who was selected by the Haitai Tigers in the 1997 draft, supposedly sneered at the size of Mudeung Stadium, questioning if the ball needs to “clear the stadium” for it to be a home run. He was subsequently released after batting .206 with no home runs in 29 games. 

Despite such setbacks, foreign players flourished in the league. Most notably, Tyron Woods of the Bears became the first foreign player to win the MVP award in 1998. He led the league with 42 home runs and 112 RBIs, topping the previous KBO home run record of 41 set by Jong-hoon Jang in 1991. His rampage continued throughout the next four years, ending his KBO career with a video-game slash line of .294/.393/.594 despite his disappointing 2001 season.

Such superhuman performances left Korean players astounded: Pure power hitters were far and few between, and most players–save notable exceptions like the aforementioned Jong-hoon Jang–focused solely on maintaining a high batting average. As a result, most players were shockingly scrawny for professional athletes of their caliber, with an average height and weight of 5-foot-10 and 163 pounds. (For comparison, the average KBO player currently is 6-foot and 192 pounds.) 

The advent of foreign players was an unpleasant, but much-needed, wake-up call. Confronted with muscular behemoths such as the 245-pound Woods, domestic players finally recognized the importance of weight training as a means to gain power and speed. Moreover, some foreign players, by openly chastising domestic players for excessively smoking and drinking alcohol, contributed heavily in furthering the league’s professionalism. These developments changed the league forever, leading to an unprecedented home run boom in the early 2000s. Seung-Yuop Lee and Tyron Woods mirrored the McGwire-Sosa home run race (minus the steroids), culminating in Lee setting an all-time Asian single-season home run record in 2003 with 56 long balls. Attendance rose exponentially, as did revenue. 

Owners were ecstatic; drooling over the prospect of increasing their sales even further, they pressured the KBO into replacing the draft system with free agency. They felt the draft system was too limiting, as major leaguers still refused to partake in the tryouts. A free-market system allowed teams to offer a contract to anyone, even to Julio Franco, a five-time silver slugger with 2177 career hits in the majors. Despite being 44 years old, he lived up to his name value by batting .327 with 22 home runs after he signed with the Samsung Lions in 2000. 

As free agency continued to lure higher caliber players into the league, teams began to turn their attention to pitchers. Previously, teams were hesitant to sign pitchers because of their volatility and the noticeable lack of potential aces that participated in the tryout sessions. After the adoption of a free agency, teams could comfortably afford a big-impact ace that could act as the No. 1 starter in the rotation. 

A notable example was Aquilino Lopez, a pitcher for the Kia Tigers who had a decent major league career with a 3.78 ERA in 159 games. In 2009, he led the league in innings pitched and wins with a 14-5 record in 190 innings. His 3.12 ERA was the third-best in a hitter-friendly league, behind only Kwang-hyun Kim–one of the best left-handed pitchers in KBO history–and Byung-doo Jeon, a Hoyt Wilhelm-esque bullpen pitcher who somehow pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. More importantly, his Hankuk Series performance, which many Koreans compare to Randy Johnson’s legendary starts in the 2001 World Series, single-handedly ended a 12-year-drought for the Tigers and illustrated the impact a foreign pitcher could have on a team.

The foreign pitchers were also an inspiration to their domestic counterparts, showing parallels to the situation with the hitters in ‘98. Korean pitchers now began focusing on weight training to gain velocity and spin rate. Average velocity thus rose from 85 mph to about 89 in the span of a decade–a drastic change considering the major league velocity increase of 91.0 to 92.5 in the same period.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Starting in the late 2000s to the early 2010s, teams began to officially hire foreign players–who were basically player-coaches anyway–as coaches. Foreign players in their late 30s would be given financial security after they retired, and young Korean players would be given a taste of major league-style management. After some initial success, teams began to use these foreign players more creatively, employing them as scouts, trainers, and managers. Soon, foreign influence pervaded all levels of a team’s organizational structure. In barely a decade, foreign players had managed to become an inseparable part of the league, and the league has transformed to accommodate them, albeit not perfectly. 

Ups and Downs of Playing in the KBO

It is remarkable how much the league has transformed since the 1990s. The days of grueling tryout sessions to sign Double-A talent are long past. The KBO has now established itself as one of the most popular destinations for foreign players. 

In fact, Korea briefly was the singular most popular destination in 2011 when the tragic Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster made many foreign players worried for their health. After the NPB Opening Day was delayed, many such players broke their contracts to leave for their home countries. Even though Japan regained its previous status, Korea left a lasting impression due to its unique benefits. 

When asked to identify the “pull factors” of South Korea, former foreign players commonly mentioned five points: 

  1. High salary, clear paydays 
  2. Good infrastructure, support from the organization 
  3. Low crime rate, public safety 
  4. Transportation/healthcare 
  5. Short travel distance

Although a million-dollar salary is pocket change to All-Star caliber players (as evidenced by Gerrit Cole’s mammoth nine-year, $324 million contract), it hovers right around the major league median salary of $1.4 million. To players who are not guaranteed a spot on a 40-man roster the following season, a KBO team’s offer of a million dollars plus incentives trumps the alternatives. 

Moreover, many KBO teams will go to extraordinary lengths to entice foreign players, including completely paying for housing, food, and other necessities. They also will guarantee the full salary by paying all necessary taxes on behalf of the player. The families of the players also will be extremely well-cared for; children will be put into top boarding schools that could cost up to $40,000 dollars a year, and an employee will be waiting on them hand and foot any time the family comes to watch the game. 

Many also consider Korea’s small geography to be a huge benefit. Compared to the six-to-10 hour flights and bus rides across the United States, the distance from one end of South Korea to the other is laughably small. In fact, one easily could travel from Incheon to Busan–the Korean equivalent of a trip from New York to Los Angeles–in less than three hours by train. 

However, the KBO is far from perfect. Foreign players, especially pitchers, are treated as expendables. Because pitchers rarely stay in Korea for more than a year or two, coaches and managers make sure they milk the last ounce of baseball left in their arms. 

Fernando Hernandez was a fireballer with shaky control who had a career major league 40.50 ERA with the Detroit Tigers. After a couple of disappointing seasons at Tucson, he signed with the SK Wyverns in 2001. He was nominated as the Opening Day starter after some promising starts in spring training and blew Wyverns fans away with his 95-plus mph fastballs and high strikeout rates. Hernandez quickly was given the No. 1 starter role over Seung-ho Lee, a soft-tossing lefty who won the Rookie of the Year award the year prior. 

Due to the team’s lack of pitching depth, Hernandez pitched in a four-man rotation on less than four days’ rest. As a foreigner, he also was expected to shoulder at least seven innings to conserve the bullpen, and he eventually led the league in innings pitched (233) and strikeouts (215) in 34 games. However, because of his poor control, Hernandez also lead the league in batters walked (134), a record that stands to this day. He threw a total of 4,144 pitches that year, which comes out to more than 120 pitches each game. 

As might have been expected, Hernandez had to undergo shoulder surgery the following season and subsequently was released. After leaving his agent a fountain pen as a goodbye present, he promised he would come back to Korea after a successful recovery and asked if the agent could “write him a new contract” using the pen he gave him. However, even after numerous surgeries, he failed to fully come back to his previous form and had to retire at the age of 34. 

Even though such  disregard for a foreign pitcher’s health is now condemned by fans and coaches alike, subtler forms of such treatments still prevail. Foreigners are still expected to pitch at least 10-20% more than Korean pitchers. This year, the average innings per game for a Korean starter was 5.03, while the average innings per game for a foreigner was 5.93. More importantly, many Korean fans still refer to foreign players “Yong Byongs,” a Korean word for mercenaries. Unless there is a drastic change in how foreign players are perceived, some forms of pitcher abuse will continue to remain in the league for the foreseeable future. 

Also, for all intents and purposes, it is impossible for a foreign player to move teams in the KBO. The Korean teams usually exercise a right to put foreign players in their reserve list. When this happens, the foreign player cannot sign with a different KBO team for two years–mercifully decreased from five years prior to 2015. 

Dan Black, who boasted an incredible .333/.413/.576 slash line with the KT Wiz in 54 games, failed to reach an agreement for a new contract with the team, who put their trust in their former All-Star first baseman, Sang-hyun Kim. However, Black was unable to sign with another KBO team despite numerous teams expressing interest because he was put on the reserve list. Because of the Wiz’s act of pure selfishness, Black had to be satisfied with a minor league deal with the Marlins and retired in the Mexican League a year later. 

Of course, there are some exceptions, Josh Lindblom being one of them. When he re-signed from the Lotte Giants in 2017, he specifically requested a clause that forbade the Giants from putting him on the reserve list. The Giants, who desperately needed to add a quality starting pitcher as quickly as possible, obliged. 

After the end of the 2017 season, Lindblom signed a one-year, $1.45 million contract with the Doosan Bears and became the first foreign player in KBO history to sign with a different team. However, the process wasn’t easy. He had to suffer through grueling legal procedures, as well as shady business practices from the Giants, who fudged legal boundaries set by the KBO to hoodwink him into signing before the November 30 deadline. 

To the Giants’ credit, they issued a public apology, stating they would like to “apologize to [Lindblom] and [Lindblom’s] family for causing a debacle, as well as for the poor effort on [their] part for not handling the logistics professionally.” However, this incident still showed how little the teams actually cared for the well-being of foreign players. They were, again, simply treated as expendables, pieces of machinery to be tossed aside after they no longer serve their purpose.

Foreign Players in 2019 and What the Future Holds

Despite these problems, the supply of talent has continued to surge, especially in the last five years with drastic changes. In previous years, teams preferred to sign old players with flashy major league careers on the verge of retirement. This includes players like the previously mentioned Franco, who was approaching 45 when the Lions offered him a contract. 

Another example is Luke Scott, previously a household name for Orioles fans. Averaging 25 home runs and an .845 OPS between 2008 and 2010, he served as a cleanup bat alongside Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff.  However, due to severe leg and back injuries, he failed to stay above the Mendoza Line in Tampa and eventually signed with the SK Wyverns in 2013. He later was released from the team for calling coach Lee Man-soo a “liar” and a “coward.” 

Retrospectively, Scott’s horrendous performance might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Starting around 2013, teams turned their attention to young prospects in their mid-to-late 20s, struggling first- and second-round draft picks with little to no major league experience. Despite their unproven nature, many of these young studs prospered in the league. In fact, three of the last five MVPs were foreign players who first came to the KBO before their 30th birthdays. 

One of these former MVPs is Eric Thames, the former Brewers first baseman who recently signed with the Nationals. Before his 28th birthday, he signed with the NC Dinos in 2014 after a disappointing sophomore season with the Blue Jays and Mariners. In the KBO, he flourished as an elite hitter after he honed his batting eye and power, finishing his 2014 campaign with a .343 batting average, 37 home runs, 121 RBIs, and an OPS of 1.111.

The NC Dinos were quick to offer him a new contract, unwittingly setting the stage for the greatest single season in KBO history. In 2015, Thames went ballistic: he hit .381, with 47 home runs, 40 steals, and 140 RBIs, becoming the first player in the KBO to join the 40-40 club. He dazzled sabermetricians as well, as he set the KBO record for SLG (.790), OPS (1.288), WAR (12.03), wOBA (.530), wRC+ (175.7), and wRAA (96.0). To top it all off, he casually hit for the cycle twice, setting another single-season KBO record. He was truly a god among men, a deus ex machina at the plate.

Thame’s success became an inspiration to other teams. They began to experiment with their foreign player picks, going after younger, even more unproven, players. An interesting pick last year was by the SK Wyverns, who chose Brock Dykxhoorn, a 24-year-old sixth-round pick by the Astros in 2014. Although he had no major league appearance and was shaky in Triple-A with a 4.60 ERA, the Wyverns felt his 95-mph fastball and 6-foot-6 stature was worth the gamble. In the end, he proved to be a semi-decent pitcher for them, with an ERA of 3.56 in 12 games. However, he was unable to pitch more than five innings per game without losing his control, and he eventually was released in mid-June. 

Although the Dykxhoorn experiment left a lot to be desired, it is a step in the right direction. Carter Stewart, a 19-year-old pitcher who was selected by the Atlanta Braves with the eighth overall pick the year before, chose to sign with the Fukuoka SoftBanks Hawks on a six-year contract instead of participating in the MLB draft. By doing so, Stewart is projected to become a free agent at age 25, younger than almost all major league free agents who have to undergo several years in the minors before making it to the majors. Super-agent Scott Boras has said  that if major league teams continue to undervalue prospects, he intends to develop “international portals” so young talents could opt to go to the NPB or the KBO. 

Although it might be a while before the KBO could attract first-round prospects such as Stewart, the possibility of young, high-ceiling talents playing in South Korea has excited many KBO fans, including me. Such a system could be a win-win-win situation for Korean fans, foreign players, and even major league teams. 

Korean fans would kill to see exciting, athletic players who have the potential to be future major league All-Stars. The possibility of the next Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw playing in the KBO in his prime has always been unfathomable–until now. There is no doubt Korean fans would welcome amateur prospects with open arms. 

These prospects would benefit from coming to South Korea by circumventing stingy major league teams who will pay them for far less than they are worth. They also would reach free agency in their mid-20s, opening the doors to longer and bigger contracts. Their presence would help the conventional foreign players in their late 20s and early 30s by discouraging pitcher abuse and other forms of exploitation. Teams would try to maintain a good image to attract future prospects, whose number one priority will be to remain healthy until they reach free agency. 

Now, what does MLB have to gain from such a blatant attempt to subvert its exploitative monopoly on prospects? An extremely large and dedicated fanbase. 

Baseball is by far the most popular sport in South Korea, but the number of serious major league fans is pitifully small. This is largely due to the lack of Korean talent in the majors. Recently acquired Cardinal Kwang-Hyun Kim joins Hyun-Jin Ryu as the only two active Korean major leaguers to have played in the KBO. However, if a large number of foreign players who played in the KBO become major league regulars, it will attract KBO fans in droves. 

I, for one, have routinely woken up at six in the morning to catch either a Brewers or Diamondbacks game whenever Kelly and Thames were playing, and I will continue to do so next year for Lindblom. If the “international portal” system actually is adopted, MLB should be ready for hundreds of thousands of Korean fans trying to get subscriptions and buying MLB merchandise–even if it does have a Nike swoosh on it. 

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4 years ago

Ji-Man Choi of the Rays is Korean. Not sure if he’s actually played in the KBO,

4 years ago
Reply to  Jim

Ji-Man Choi and Shin-Soo Choo both signed with the Seattle Mariners straight out of high school! Former all-star Chan Ho Park also signed as an amateur free agent with the Dodgers when he was still pitching in college.

4 years ago

Thanks for this — I always love to see any English-language Asian baseball content. I’d love for there to be enough US demand to increase the accessibility of the broadcasts outside of the country. I’m a long-time Pacific League TV subscriber and thus an avid NPB fan, but sadly know very little about the KBO since I don’t have a way to watch the games with any consistency.

4 years ago

Good stuff. I love the KBO. There was nothing like watching Thames those two years, just incredible.