Jung-hoo Lee is a 25-year-old outfielder who after seven seasons playing for the Kiwoom Heroes in KBO was posted for MLB teams to sign. Lee has been one of the best players in Korea winning Rookie of the Year in 2017 and a league MVP in 2022 with 5 Gold Gloves during his 7 seasons.
Lee has posted some gaudy offensive numbers in the last few seasons:
In comparison, Lee’s former teammate Ha-Seong Kim had a 141 WRC+ in 2020 in his last season in KBO. While Kim had more power in his swing before leaving Korea, Lee still drives the ball. His 150 doubles since 2020 are the most in KBO in that time.
Lee had his 2023 season cut short after a fractured left ankle in July playing just 86 games but he did come back for one at-bat in October after surgery.
What does he do well?
Lee doesn’t have outlandish exit velocities but since March 2022, according to our Synthetic Statcast data, he has the highest average exit velocity of any KBO player at 89.6 mph. He consistently touches low-end hard-hit velocities as well. His 561 hard hits since 202 are easily the most in KBO. Lee also has high bat-to-ball skills and rarely strikes out with a 5.1% and 5.9% strikeout rate the last two seasons.
Ha-Seong Kim, 2020 in KBO for Kiwoom
90.1 average EV
13 Launch Angle
108.9 max EV
Jung-hoo Lee, 2022 (healthy season) in KBO for Kiwoom
88.7 ave EV
107.0 max EV pic.twitter.com/Pngun0joHJ
— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) November 28, 2023
Lee’s setup is unusual. Starting with an open stance with his feet shoulder-width apart. Lee then loads into his backside, storing energy and putting almost no weight on his front foot. He gets to this position early, before the pitcher’s hands break.
He then has his head fully turned to the mound with both eyes fixated on seeing the ball early. With this move, he also loads his hands back slightly and puts his bat at an acute angle behind his helmet.
As he moves forward he unleashes this energy with a short and quick swing finishing with high hands and either a one-handed or two-handed finish. His barrel control is impressive and his ability to spoil pitches and adjust his posture and bat head is an asset.
Lee is a patient hitter who tries to hit the ball hard and gets full swings off even in two-strike counts, and he’s a really good two-strike hitter. His contact in and out of the zone deep in counts lets him look for certain pitches early and work the count.
Lee likes the ball on the inner-third and many teams in Korea tried to pitch him away because of this. He punished pitches on the inner third of the plate.
Since 2020 he has hit .320 with a .616 slugging percentage and 1.071 against inner-third pitches with 27 HRs on those pitches. He understands his best chance to drive the baseball in the air is on inside pitches.
Teams tried to pitch Lee away to neutralize his power but he takes his base hits the other way as well.
He keeps the ball up the middle to his pull side for the most part but is disciplined enough to stay on off-speed pitches and fastballs away, displaying gap power to both left and right field. With a 37% hard-hit rate in 2023 and 32% in 2022, it makes sense that Lee wants to inflict damage on the pull side.
Even though he doesn’t cut down on his swing often, he makes a lot of contact with only an 8% whiff rate since 2020. His ability to put the bat on the ball, especially in the zone, stands out. While he will ultimately face better pitching in MLB, the contact ability should translate.
With a 41% swing rate he hunts pitches early in the count and while he does have some chase his knack for making contact out of the zone is also impressive. He has only 84 swinging Ks in 1,888 at-bats since 2020.
Lee hits the ball on the ground a lot, sometimes hard enough to get it through the infield. With a ground ball rate of 58% in 2022 and 59% in 2023, it can explain his lack of power production. A 59% ground ball rate would have ranked 3rd in MLB among those with at least 300 plate appearances last season.
This also led to Lee being “Full Ted” shifted (what we at SIS call three infielders on one side of the field.) As well as shaded up the middle (or what we call Partial Shifts) with two infielders on the weak side playing closer to 2nd base. To put this into perspective Lee was shifted on 55% of the balls he put in play in 86 games last season. That was second in the league behind Jose Rojas at 56%.
With the limits placed on shifting in MLB Lee could still try and pull the ball even on the ground, but to tap into his power potential he will need to get the ball in the air more.
With a high finish to his swing, when he gets the right pitch, he can backspin the ball out of the park. Lee hunts pitches to lift and pulls both when he has an advantage in the count and early on first and second pitches as well.
Lee also does his most damage on fastballs, with a .358 batting average and .991 OPS, and 27 home runs against them since 2020. KBO fastballs sit more high-80s and low-90s so as with any player making the jump to MLB he will have to deal with consistently higher velos.
He “struggles” against sliders and cutters if you can even call it that, still slashing .290 BA/.840 OPS against sliders and .273 BA/.724 OPS against cutters since 2020. Easily his worst performance against pitch types although he faced only ~300 cutters and ~1,600 sliders in that time frame compared to ~ 4,200 fastballs.
His biggest adjustment will most likely come against not only higher velocity fastballs, more mid-90s than low-90s, but also more quality sliders and sweepers. Lee will probably be tested by high velocity early in MLB and then teams will start to mix in breaking balls and off-speeds if he shows the ability to routinely handle high velocity.
Lee’s defense is interesting. In 2022 Lee had -13 DRS in CF but would still flash moments of highlight-type grabs. Inconsistency and forcing throws contributed to this number. In his 2023 shortened season he had an outstanding 9 DRS. KBO players are judged using an MLB out probability basis and he performed very well last season.
This huge fluctuation probably leaves Lee somewhere in the middle, as someone who can hold his own in CF for an MLB team, and with his athleticism he can make the plays he needs to. He profiles better as a corner outfielder though and with a strong enough arm to play RF over LF but he might get some run in CF for whatever MLB team he signs with.
He’s comfortable going back or coming in. One quirk I noticed watching him is that he routinely tries to get around the ball to catch fly balls on backhands even when going to his forehand side and displays comfort in tracking the ball.
With his above-average speed and solid ball tracking, he should be average to slightly above depending on what position he plays. He also uses his speed on the base paths but more to take extra bases rather than rack up stolen bases, with only 69 swiped bags in his KBO career. Although, the “Grandson of the Wind” can scoot when he needs to.
The nickname is an homage to his legendary father Jong-Beom Lee, who won an MVP award in 1994. The older Lee also holds the record for the most stolen bases in a season with 84 during his MVP campaign, earning him the nickname “Son of the Wind”.
What to Expect
Lee will have a transition period, especially in his first season in MLB. Facing high velocity and better pitching overall will be an adjustment. While he might never hit for much power, if he’s able to lift the ball a little bit more he can still pull the ball for home runs but might have modest homer totals overall.
Lee projects as a high average and on-base leadoff hitter who is just entering his prime. He has the contact skills and batter’s eye to make an impact along with the defensive acumen and athleticism to hold his own at any of the outfield spots, with left field probably being his best fit. Lee should turn into a solid to above-average player with some upside, a la Jeff McNeil, if he hits for more power.