Lee Jung-hoo finds success on the field and at the bank
Kiwoom Heroes' outfielder Lee Jung-hoo continues to go from strength-to-strength both on the field and at the bank, breaking the KBO salary record for a player of his experience for the third straight year.
The Heroes announced on Jan. 12 that Lee will earn 550 million won ($480,000) in 2021, the highest-ever paycheck for a fifth-year KBO player.
Lee's new contract is especially remarkable as it far exceeds the current record set by Kim Ha-seong, of the San Diego Padres, who received 20 million won ($282,000) in his fifth year with the Nexen Heroes in 2018.
Lee has set a new annual salary record for three consecutive years, with 230 million won in his third year and 390 million in his fourth year. The record for the second-year was set by the KT Wiz's Kang Baek-ho in 2019.
Lee is known as Grandson of the Wind, a reference to his father Lee Jong-beom, a Kia Tigers legend nicknamed Son of the Wind for his base-running speed. The elder Lee — generally considered one of the greatest KBO players of the 1990s — is a household name in Korea, but Lee Jung-hoo has already seen enough success to escape from his father's shadow.
Lee played in 140 games in the KBO last year, recording a career high of 15 home runs, 101 RBIs, and a batting average of 0.333. He also won the Golden Glove Award in outfield for the third time. Kiwoom awarded Lee's strong performance with a big salary raise.
Based on spring training so far, it looks like Lee is ready to do it again.
Kiwoom faced the Hanhwa Eagles in a practice match on March 6 and Lee didn't waste any time.
Hanhwa's new manager Carlos Subero has recently been testing various defenses based on the direction and speed of the opposing batters, shifting infielders well off their bases to cover possible holes or sending the shortstop back to the edge of the outfield to cover big hitters.
The new approach seems successful, but not when it comes to Lee. In three consecutive at bats, Lee found the hole in the Hanwha defense, even as Subero moved fielders around to shut down opportunities.
"The best hitter bats at number three, which makes Lee Jung-hoo the third batter," explained Kiwoom manager Hong Won-ki.
Barring injury, Lee's record breaking trips to the bank look set to continue.
Ryu Hyun-jin of the Toronto Blue Jays holds the record for a sixth-year salary at 400 million won with the Eagles back in 2011, while Kim Ha-seong holes the seventh-year record at 550 million won. As Lee has already hit both these milestones, the only way is up.
After seven years, the future is unclear. Lee could keep toppling KBO records, but if he continues his current streak it seems more likely he'll be trying to head overseas. Kim made the same jump after seven years with the Heroes full support, so Lee will likely have the club's backing if he tries to go to the majors.
"If I feel that I'm ready to play in the MLB in three years," Lee said, "I might give it a try."
This year, Lee is aiming to join Team Korea at the Tokyo Olympics, an arena that even his father never got to play in.
BY BAE YOUNG-EUN, SEO JI-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]