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MLB teams’ investment tested in 1st half

Some Korean players proved valuable while others hope to improve

July 15,2016
The first half of the Major League Baseball (MLB) season has ended, and the teams of the seven Koreans playing in the big leagues are taking stock of their investment.

Some players far exceeded the expectations set for them before the season started, and others will enter the second half, which begins tomorrow Korean time, filled with regret and disappointment.

The so-called three amigos, Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers, Lee Dae-ho of the Seattle Mariners and Oh Seung-hwan of the St. Louis Cardinals, who are all 33 years old, had the most impressive first half of all.

As an MLB veteran, Choo led the Rangers often as the leadoff batter. Lee, who was not guaranteed a spot in the majors at the beginning of the season, fought against the odds and made himself a regular starter on the Mariners.

And Oh, who started out the season as a setup man, secured the closing assignment for the Cardinals and became the first Korean to card at least one save in three different leagues, namely the Korean and Japanese leagues and now also the MLB.

Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles, Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins, all of whom joined the MLB straight out of the KBO, had a roller coaster of a first half.

After spring training, the Orioles’ Kim was on the verge of being relegated to the minors, but he exercised his contractual right and refused, eventually becoming a key hitter for the team.

Kang, who returned from a knee injury, played as a cleanup hitter for the Pirates but ended the first half mired in sexual assault allegations.

The Twins’ Park was demoted to the minor league for his poor batting performance, despite slugging 12 homers.

Meanwhile, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers finally came out of rehab in the last week before the break, though his first game back with the team was anything but optimistic.

Choi Ji-man of the Los Angeles Angels went back and forth between the minors and majors throughout the first half, until he was finally brought back to the Major League before the break.

Statistically, based on wins above replacement (WAR), the Orioles’ Kim and Cardinals’ Oh gave the best performance in comparison to salary.

WAR is a sabermetric statistic that shows a player’s total contribution to the team. It calculates the number of wins a team has achieved because of the player in comparison to how many it could have won if the player was substituted with another player who may be added to the team with minimal cost.

A WAR of 1.0 implies that a player enabled the team to add one more win in comparison to a replacement-level player. Generally speaking, a WAR of 1.0 is equivalent to $7 million. According to Fangraph.com, out of the four Korean rookies, three recorded above 1.0 in WAR.

Kim recorded 1.0 in WAR. Although he lacked any long hits, he ended the first half with a .329 batting average and .410 on-base percentage, both the team’s best. This means Kim’s performance from the first half is worth more than twice his annual salary of $2.8 million.

Oh’s annual salary guaranteed is $2.5 million, a bargain for his team in comparison to other pitchers in the MLB. But after replacing All-Star Trevor Rosenthal as the closer, Oh now has more opportunities to pocket some additional bonuses. If he keeps his closing job until the end of the season, he could earn up to $4 million. Oh’s first half WAR was 1.4, meaning he played above $10 million worth.

The Mariners also profited quite a bit from its split-contract deal with Lee. Lee recorded 1.0 in WAR after batting .288 with 12 homers and 37 runs batted in (RBI). This means he has already proven to be worth at least $7 million. Despite this, the Mariners will only have to pay Lee $4 million by the end of the season, including incentives.

The first season for the Twins’ Park went the opposite trajectory from his compatriots. Although his annual salary of $2.75 million is low in comparison to the league average, the Twins had to expend over $12 million for his transfer fee. This means the team is spending about $5.95 billion for the duration of his contract.

The Twins hoped their investment would generate at least a 1.0 WAR. But Park’s WAR during the past three months stayed low, recording a meager 0.1, mainly due to his low batting average of .191.

Other players such as Kang, Choo and Ryu have been on the mend in the early part of the season. Now fully back in the big leagues, they have the second half to look forward to after the All-Star break.

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG, CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]


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