Lee Jung-hoo Takes the KBO by Storm

The youngster could have a path to MLB success

The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) is the only baseball league in the world currently playing regular-season games and is one of the best leagues outside of the United States. Hyun-jin Ryu, Shin-soo Choo, and Ji-Man Choi, current MLBers, all hail from Korea and have had successful MLB careers, as well as others. Korea and the KBO produce good baseball talent and Lee Jung-hoo may be next in line to transition from the KBO to MLB.

So, who is Lee Jung-hoo?

He’s a 21-year-old outfielder for the Kiwoom Heroes who has been one of the best hitters in the league this season. Standing at 6’1”, 172 lbs, Lee, who throws right and bats from the left side of the plate, has been steadily been improving since his entry to the KBO in 2017 to become a potential MLB player in the near future.

At the plate, Lee stands with an open stance, holding his bat high. As the pitcher delivers, Lee closes up, coiling his upper body away from the pitcher, resulting in an explosive swing. He has excellent bat control and gets the bat on almost every single pitch that he swings at, usually with good results.

He’s consistently improved every year, with both his contact and power skills rising, as well as his plate discipline. The power improvement has been the most eye-catching and impressive; with his 2019 SLG of 0.456 and wOBA of 0.387, you’re talking pure contact skills which would make a transition to MLB a lot more unlikely. But he’s gotten older, now 21, and added more strength as he’s grown into his 6’1” frame, producing a 0.248 ISO, 0.457 wOBA, and a 173 wRC+.

That rise in power is thanks to his hard-hit rate of 25%, which ranks 12th in the KBO amongst hitters with 100+ at-bats. And thanks to a recent ESPN broadcast of a Kiwoom Heroes — Lotte Giants game, we got a little more insight into how that change happened. The Kiwoom Director of Analytics was on that broadcast and spoke a little on Lee’s improvement. He stated that it was partially due to growth and increased strength as Lee aged, but they also made a mechanical adjustment, trying to catch the ball out in front of the plate to barrel it up and in the air. That change reportedly happened last offseason and we are seeing Lee reap those benefits this season.

Another aspect of Lee Jung-hoo’s statistical profile that I love to see is his stellar BB/K ratio of 1.31, the third-best rate in the league. Along with that low K%, according to Sports Info Solutions, Lee has a Whiff % of just 9%, tied for 3rd lowest among hitters with 100+ at-bats. That’s a fantastic sign and indicative of his ability to get the bat on the ball at an extremely high rate. And when he’s hitting the ball hard 25% of the time, that’ll result in positive outcomes for Lee.

For Lee’s best path to sustained MLB success, I’d want to get him into a minor league system ASAP to get some experience facing pitchers throwing 90+ mph and good breaking balls. He’ll face some of the MLB caliber guys, like Dan Straily, Chris Flex, Koo Chang-mo, throughout the season, but none of them throw super hard with the kt wiz’s Odrisamer Despaigne, who averages 92–93 on his fastball being the hardest thrower I’ve seen in the KBO so far. Adapting to the velocity increase and the general culture shock of transition from Korea to the United States would be the biggest obstacle in Lee’s path.

But say he overcomes those obstacles and makes it to the majors and becomes an everyday player, what could his production look like?

Obviously, the power would be the biggest question mark; Lee is on pace for about 21 HRs this season in the KBO. Given his age and trajectory, if he remains in the KBO, I could see Lee hitting about 30+ for a few years at his peak. But in the majors, I’d set about 20 HRs as his ceiling. He hits the ball hard and in the air a lot, but doesn’t quite show the titanic power that some players in the KBO display regularly.

Expecting his contact and plate discipline skills to translate reasonably well, I can see Lee Jung-hoo peaking where Michael Brantley was last season. Now, I know that’s a lofty comparison as Brantley has been one of the best pure hitters in the game, but I think it makes sense.

In 2019, Brantley slashed 0.311/0.372/0.503 with a 133 wRC+ and a BB% of 8.0% and K% of 10.4%. That’s a very good and valuable player; Brantley was worth 4.2 WAR last season, 34th in the league. Now, that’s a potential ceiling for Lee, but it’s extremely difficult to find strong MLB comps for a guy like Lee because of the difference in approach between the KBO and MLB. MLB is focused on the 3 true outcomes: walk, strikeout, home run whereas the KBO puts more of a premium on contact and putting the ball in play. But Lee Jong-hoo has the potential to walk the line between the two, sacrificing a little bit of contact to hit for a little more sustainable power.

Lee Jung-hoo has consistently improved in the KBO, transforming into one of the top hitters and outfielders in the league and could be well-positioned to succeed in the majors in a few years.

*All stats used in this article originated from FanGraphs.com, Sports Info Solutions’ free KBO advanced stats, and myKBO.com*

Sophomore studying Sport Management and Economics at the University of Texas. Writing about Baseball from an analytical and scouting perspective

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