The upcoming free agent class is one of the strongest ever in terms of starting pitching and probably one of the weakest in terms of position players.
Jung-Hoo Lee is expected to be posted this offseason and will be considered one of the best position players available. Lee is a very interesting player, especially when considering that he’s been playing in the KBO, not the NPB. The KBO is generally considered to be on a similar level to High-A ball while the NPB draws comparisons to Triple-A or even a “Four-A” level of play. For example, KBO pitchers averaged 88 mph on their fastballs this past season, whereas the MLB average was 94 mph.
Lee is a left-handed hitter and right-handed thrower who plays centerfield. He has spent his entire seven-season career with the Kiwoom Heroes. He has been an above-average hitter every year since joining the league and, until this past season, had improved, at least statistically, every year.
Jung-hoo Lee. Walk-off 2-run bomb. 🇰🇷
HE. IS. A. BEAST.pic.twitter.com/M1NTaumPMc
— Shawn Spradling (@Shawn_Spradling) April 17, 2023
Herein lies the first potential concern with Lee. While he was next-level excellent in 2022, he came back down to earth in 2023 and was merely very good.
Before we dive in, I’d like to provide a very serious caveat for this scouting report. I have never seen Lee play in person, and therefore I have no first-hand accounts of how talented he is as a fielder or as baserunner. While I was able to find ample video online of his plate appearances, I did not have the same luck with the other facets of his game. Additionally, baserunning and defensive data are not readily available online, either. This is very important to note, as an above-average centerfielder at Lee’s age would garner about $14 million to $18 million annually over five to seven years, even if they were performing slightly below average as a hitter. So, if Lee projects to be a below-average fielding left-fielder, his bat alone would have to carry his asking price on the open market.
Therefore, this breakdown will only be of Lee’s hitting ability and potential, much to my chagrin. Nevertheless, let’s dive into Lee’s stats and try to understand if 2022 was an anomaly, or if it provides a potential ceiling and how far Lee may be from achieving that potential output in the MLB.
Lee has outstanding plate discipline as he’s walked more than he’s struck out each of the last five seasons and continues to improve in this regard. This past season, Lee managed to lower his strikeout rate to a microscopic 5.9 percent while raising his walk rate to a more robust 12.7 percent clip. All the while, he limited his swinging strike rate to just 3.2 percent.
His power, on the other hand, has been experienced more vicissitudes. Lee’s ISO was a robust .226 in 2022 but experienced a major regression to .136 in 2023. This power outage saw his home run total fall from 23 to just six. Interestingly, while Lee’s HR/FB rate decreased by more than half, the rest of his batted ball profile stayed almost the same. This leads me to believe that pitchers in the KBO could make the adjustment and pitch too Lee in a way that seriously hampered his ability to produce at an elite level.
Scouting-wise, his swing bears out very similar conclusions to both his batted ball profile and 2023 statistical output. When these three crucial avenues of analysis all agree, it makes conclusions that much easier to determine. Diving into Lee’s swing, he varies his stance: sometimes he’s open and sometimes he’s square with the plate. Yet, Lee’s swing itself is extremely consistent and mechanically excellent. He can consistently keep his hands in while still producing power, and his bat speed and exit velocities are nothing short of elite. You can’t teach that; his hands are just so fast through the zone.
Lee’s elite bat speed and plate discipline, especially at the young age of 25, are what provide an extremely optimistic ceiling for the foreign prospect. His ability to handle pitches up in the strike zone paints a picture of a hitter who has a very bright major-league future.
It has been a down year for Jung-hoo Lee in the KBO, but he is heating up
Over his last 10 games, he has gone 19-for-40 with 3 doubles, 3 home runs & 6 walks👀
Lee has elite bat-to-ball ability (91% contact rate), some power (though, he is a heavy-GB hitter), and some speed https://t.co/TCNZ9MyxeL
— Jesse Roche (@jaroche6) June 8, 2023
On the flip side, while Lee does not sell out for power, his swing is ill-suited for hitting to the opposite field with authority. Thanks to Fangraphs, we have plenty of data to delve into for KBO hitters and those numbers confirm his swing analysis. Lee pulls the ball over 40 percent of the time while hitting groundballs almost 60 percent of the time. This profile will not translate to the Major Leagues. Pulling the ball on the ground is almost as bad as striking out or popping up.
Yet, there is reason to believe that he can make the requisite adjustments to succeed in MLB, though this prognosis is highly unlikely to transpire as early as 2024. His angular swing path and short swing impede his ability to spray the ball around the field as well as hit the ball with authority to his non-pull field. These negatives stem from the same root cause as his positives, which is the compact approach that leads to few strikeouts and elite bat speed. Therefore, to improve and cement himself as a serious major leaguer, Lee will have to completely overhaul his swing. Combined with the fact that KBO pitchers simply don’t challenge hitters anywhere close to the level that MLB pitchers can, Lee’s likelihood to produce in 2024 is bleak.
Teams would be wise to eschew Lee’s likely lack of production in 2024 as his elite hand speed and exit velocity are so rare that the team that can develop and unlock the full gauntlet of his skills will be rewarded with a potential perennial .300 hitter who adds 40 double and 20 homers year in and year out.
— chendd⚾️ (@chendd_pop) February 23, 2023
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