First Half Grades for Korean Major Leaguers

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

As the second half of the 2015 MLB season underway, here’s a look at how the players of Korean descent fared in the big leagues until now. It’s a mixed bag, filled with disappointments but also plenty to cheer for, especially with the newcomers.

Shin-soo Choo



Outfielder, Texas Rangers
An Expensive Disappointment
Grade: D-

With great power comes great responsibility. With a hefty contract comes heavy expectations, and Shin-soo Choo just looks like dead weight out there.

It hurts to write that, as Choo worked tirelessly to get back into game shape after injuries made his first year with the Rangers a forgettable one. But year two of a 7-year, $130 million contract isn’t faring much better, and in fact, it looks worse: His slash line of .221/.305/.384 for the first half is the worst of his career since his major league debut in 2005.

He’s a far cry from the player who made getting on base look easy just a few years ago with the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds. At 33 years old, Choo isn’t the youngest player on the roster, but this drop-off hopefully isn’t due to aging.

The Rangers are reportedly even considering trading him in the upcoming offseason. The team is full of left-handed hitters and the outfield is crowded, so it’s quite possible Choo might be palying elsewhere in 2016. We’re rooting for a stronger second half, whether it boosts his trade value or actually helps the Rangers get back into the AL West race.

See Also: KoreAm’s August/September 2014 Cover Story on Shin-soo Choo

Jung-ho Kang


Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 11.06.27 AM(Photo via Pittsburgh Pirates/Instagram)

Third Baseman, Pittsburgh Pirates
The New Kid on the Block
Grade: A

Who would’ve thought the first-year player with so many question marks would end up being the most consistent on our list halfway through the 2014 season? Kang, 28, had important questions attached to his 4-year, $16 million contract: Could he hit MLB pitching? Would he get enough playing time behind starter Josh Harrison, and if he did, would his defense be a liability? And the most important one: Is his leg kick too much?

The numbers speak for themselves. In 72 game appearances (53 starts), Kang is hitting a respectable .268/.348/.384 with four home runs and 29 RBI. His offensive WAR is measured at 1.4, which is decent for someone who didn’t have consistent playing time early in the season. Kang has appeared primarily at third base on defense, but did start 16 games at shortstop, and he’s held his own—his 0.3 defensive WAR looks better than Harrison’s negative 0.3 dWAR. And by the way, #thatlegkick.

Kang has started at third base since early July, when Harrison was sidelined with a thumb injury. Coming into the All Star break, Kang hit safely in nine of his last 10 starts while slotted in at clean-up, batting .293 (12 for 41) in that span with one double, two triples and seven runs scored. His surge matches the Pirates roaring into the break and going 8-2 in the last 10 games; they are now just two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the division lead.

Here’s hoping we see Kang and the Pirates in the playoffs come October.

See Also: Jung-ho Kang Heating Up, Keeping Struggling Pirates Afloat


Hank Conger

Hank Conger
(Photo via Getty Images)

Catcher, Houston Astros
The Really Nice Dude Who You Can’t Not Like
Grade: B

As an Angels fan, it hurt to see fan-favorite Hank Conger, aka PandaCrusher35, be traded away. It hurt just as much to see the Houston Astros charging out of the gate in the American League West, but that pain is subsiding just a bit as the Astros did a full face-plant going into the All-Star break, ending up half a game behind the Angels.

By the way, Conger has some twerking skills.

Of course, I’d like to see Conger be successful wherever he goes, and a look at his numbers shows he’s doing slightly better across the board with roughly the same amount of playing time as last season in the role of backup catcher. Conger started in 60 and 70 games in 2013 and 2014, respectively; this year, he’s started in 27 games behind Jason Castro.

Conger is walking more this year, reflected in his on-base percentage (.339) and slugging (.434), which are at the highest of his career. Even with less playing time compared to the last two years, Conger is on track for the highest single-season WAR of his career (currently sitting at 0.9). The only knock is his defense this year—the 6 percent caught-stealing percentage is far below the league average of 36 percent.

Apart from that last bit, you can’t expect much more from a backup catcher. Conger came into the league offense-first, and he’s slotted into his role serviceably. As an Angels fan, go Hank! But the team can stay in second place, please.

See Also: Hank Conger Traded to Houston Astros

Rob Refsnyder

 rob refsnyder flickr commons(Photo via Rob Hagerty and Flickr/Creative Commons License)

Second Baseman, New York Yankees
The Young’un with Big Shoes to Fill
Grade: To Be Continued

It’s hard not to get excited for Rob Refsnyder once you see past the pinstripes. That’s especially true for Yankees fans, who have been waiting for the next player to fill the hole Robinson Cano left in 2014. After getting called up on July 11, Refsnyder collected both his first big-league hit and home run at Fenway Park in the last game before the All-Star break. The best part: His family was in the crowd, and the hits came against the Red Sox.

Manager Joe Girardi won’t reveal what the team’s plan is for Refsnyder, but it isn’t a two-week trial. Even though the Yankees have a crowded roster, expect Refsnyder to get plenty of outings at second—though, the team will have to decide whether to keep the young player or send him back down to the minors.

One knock on his game has been his defense, but despite his first error in the major leagues on July 12 (13 errors at Triple-A), Girardi was happy overall, which bodes well. Offensively, Refsnyder has been pretty solid at Triple-A, hitting .290 with an on-base percentage of .387 and slugging .413—consistent with the numbers he put up last year after being promoted from Double-A.

Meanwhile, Refsnyder made his first start in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium on Friday night. Best of luck to the guy, pinstripes and all.

See Also: KoreAm’s August 2012 Feature on Robert Refsnyder


Hyun-jin Ryu


Starting Pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Hibernating Giant
Grade: N/A

The Dodgers were looking to fix the cracks in their armor after yet another playoff exit to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. After bolstering their infield with Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, the team was looking forward to another year of a pitching rotation anchored by reigning MVP and Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Ryu and newcomer Brandon McCarthy.

Ryu’s season ended before it began when he underwent left shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, and McCarthy became a Tommy John victim. However, the Dodgers have been able to keep first place going into the All-Star break because of their sheer depth of talent and surprising pitching performances from their non-Kershaw and Greinke starters.

The best-case scenario is that Ryu is back for spring training next year and that the shoulder doesn’t plague him in the future. Get well, and see you in 2016.

In the meantime, you kill time until April by reading the longest feature ever written on Hyun-jin Ryu by KoreAm’s Steve Han.


Featured image via (Screenshot)

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