South Korea is typically a strong nation in international baseball competitions, and this year’s World Baseball Classic team is a favorite to advance out of their pool. Team Korea’s lineup will be headlined by Cardinals shortstop Tommy Edman and Padres infielder Ha-seong Kim, with former Orioles outfielder Hyun-soo Kim playing a supporting role, among others.
Outside of those three, many players in key spots will be unfamiliar to many North American fans. So let’s preview some of their key players from the KBO, a league that we watch intently here at Sports Info Solutions:
The Young Bats
Team Korea has two young left-handed hitters who will line up in the middle of the order for the WBC. The first is Jung-hoo Lee, a 24-year-old outfielder for the Kiwoom Heroes. Lee is the best pure hitter in the KBO, with a career batting average of .342 and more career walks than strikeouts. Last season Lee did his best Tony Gwynn impression, posting a tiny 5% strikeout rate with an 11% walk rate.
His bat to ball skills and discipline are paired with modest game power, though his raw power suggests more room for growth. Lee ranked fourth in the KBO last season with an average exit velocity of 89 MPH according to our Synthetic Statcast model (SIS replicates Statcast data for non-MLB leagues), and he also finished in the top 10 in hard-hit rate (38%) and expected BABIP (.388). His swing currently produces a lot of line drives, which limits his ability to drive balls out of the park, though the raw power he has suggests he could sacrifice some batting average for more power with mechanical changes.
Defensively Lee has played exclusively in center field the last two seasons, and will likely line up in center for Team Korea. He is a natural athlete, but doesn’t have the elite instincts needed to play a high-end center field and profiles better in a corner spot long-term. His baserunning is similar, as he is a good baserunner due to his natural athleticism, but does not have elite speed or base stealing ability.
Lee will be hoping to use the WBC as a chance to showcase his hitting skills against elite pitchers, as he is expected to be posted by Kiwoom after the 2023 season. His first chance to test himself will be against Team Japan in pool play, with Japan having one of the deepest pitching staffs in the tournament.
Joining Lee in the heart of the lineup will be KT Wiz first baseman Baek-ho Kang. Kang is very much a bat-first player who has adjusted his approach during his time in the KBO. In his rookie season Kang set his career highs in home runs (29) and strikeouts (124), but since then has traded some home run power for more contact and gap power.
Despite his strong performances in the KBO, there are some storylines worth following with Kang in the WBC. He took a lot of criticism for how he reacted to Korea’s disappointing fourth- place finish in the Tokyo Olympics, though he did hit .308 with a double and 4 RBI over the tournament.
Kang also dealt with some adversity in the KBO for the first time last year. He missed the first couple of months of the season with a toe injury, and also missed a month and a half with a hamstring injury. Between the injuries Kang struggled to produce at the plate for the first time in his career, posting career lows in many categories in his statline.
His advanced metrics show how much the injuries limited his game. His hard-hit rate dropped from 33% to 26%, and his average exit velocity was down by 1 MPH. Despite increasing his average launch angle in 2022, he set a new career low with only 6 home runs and a .371 SLG over 62 games. He will be looking to rebound in 2023, and hopefully a strong showing in the WBC will help him get off to a good start this year.
The KBO Veterans
Beyond the MLB players and potential future stars, Team Korea has some veteran players rounding out the lineup from the KBO. Alongside Hyun-soo Kim, who fans likely remember from his time in Baltimore, Byung-ho Park is the other position player with MLB experience. Park signed a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins before 2016, but struggled in his limited MLB opportunities. He requested his release two years into the contract to return to the KBO.
Park was a notable prospect for his power, which he did show in his brief MLB look, hitting 12 home runs in 62 games. Now 36 years old, Park is still hitting the ball hard as he led the KBO in hard hit rate last year at 41%, while also finishing second in average exit velocity (just under 90 MPH) and sixth in average launch angle (just over 18 degrees).
Park’s continued success hitting for power has him fourth all-time in KBO home runs despite a slow start to his career and missing two of his prime years playing in North America. At 362 career home runs, he is only 12 behind Dae-ho Lee for third all-time.
Park will likely line up at first base for Team Korea, with fellow KT Wiz teammate Baek-ho Kang will likely be the DH. The veteran Park is a much better defender, and won the KBO Fielding Bible Award at first base this past season.
Across the diamond at third base will be another KBO veteran, and one of the most accomplished KBO hitters in history, in Jeong Choi. He produced a SLG above .500 in each season since 2010 and from 2010-2021 he had an OPS of .900 or better every year, falling just below that benchmark in 2022 (.891).
Choi ranks 17th in KBO history in hits and is second all-time in home runs. He is only 7 hits away from reaching 2,000 career KBO hits, and is 38 home runs behind Seung-yeop Lee in all-time KBO home runs.
Choi’s formula for success is quite simple, as he hits the ball hard and in the air. Choi led the KBO in average launch angle last season, checking in just under 22 degrees. Combining that with his good raw power (he’s in the top 25 in average exit velocity and hard hit rate) allows him to maximize his power output.
Team Korea will also rely on a veteran behind the plate, with 14-year veteran catcher Eui-ji Yang of the NC Dinos. Yang is a solid defender, having won the 2020 KBO Fielding Bible Award at catcher, and has plenty of experience calling games and leading pitching staffs.
However, Yang really shines in the batter’s box. He has always been able to make contact, evidenced by high batting averages and low strikeout rates, but he tapped into more power later in his career by increasing his launch angle. He has walked more than he has struck out in four of the last five seasons, while posting his best power numbers during that time as well.
In the outfield, Sung-bum Na will look to add some power from the left side of the plate to Team Korea’s lineup. Na attracted some interest from MLB teams after the 2020 season, but was unable to find a contract to his liking and returned to the KBO. Na has big power, and in 2021 he finished in the top 5 in average exit velocity and hard hit rate in the KBO. He didn’t quite match that in 2022 but still had solid numbers in those areas.
Na also features some flaws in his game that can be exploited. He strikes out a lot, with his strikeout rate sitting between 20% and 25% each of the last few seasons. He has been in the top three in the KBO in strikeouts in each of the last three seasons.
Na also dealt with a gruesome injury in 2019, and his mobility has suffered since returning. He is not a threat on the bases, and he has lost range in the outfield. Expect him to be replaced with a defensive replacement or pinch runner in the WBC.
The KBO Fielding Bible Award Winners
The KBO is not a league known for having elite defense. Most position players in the league are rated below MLB average by DRS, and some drastically so. However, Team Korea has made sure to fill the roster with some of the best defensive players in the country, particularly ones who grade out as MLB average or better.
On the infield, Hye-seong Kim of Kiwoom has won two KBO Fielding Bible Awards at second base (2020 and 2022), as well as the 2020 multi-position Fielding Bible Award. Primarily a second baseman with Kiwoom, he was the double play partner of Ha-seong Kim before he joined the Padres. Hye-seong Kim has also played shortstop and left field in recent seasons, and could also pinch run for Team Korea in the WBC (he has three seasons of at least 30 steals, with a career best of 46).
Also available on the infield is Ji-hwan Oh, who has won the KBO Fielding Bible Award at shortstop in each of the last two seasons. He likely would have battled Hye-seong Kim for a starting role on Team Korea had Tommy Edman not joined the team for the WBC.
Since we started awarding the KBO Fielding Bible Awards in 2020, the center field award has been won by either Hae-min Park (2020 and 2022) and Ji-hoon Choi (2021). Both players are on Team Korea for the WBC, and could either start in center field (moving Jung-hoo Lee to a corner) or more likely come off the bench to upgrade the corner outfield defense in the late innings.
Park is a speedster who covers a lot of ground and can steal bases, though he has cut back on his stolen bases a little as he entered his thirties. At 25 years old, Ji-hoon Choi is 7 years younger than Park, though he is a very similar player as a left-handed hitting speedster with modest power.
Team Korea has built a well-balanced roster for the WBC, with some young stars, veteran leaders and quality supporting players. A big test for this position player group in pool play will be how they manage to do against the powerful pitching staff of Team Japan. Once out of pool play, the pitching it faces is expected to be much tougher, and their hitters ability to adjust to high-end pitchers will determine how far the team goes.