The outfield market is seemingly bare entering the offseason, which makes the posting of KBO superstar Jung-Hoo Lee even more enticing. While the Yankees are certainly a team surrounded by question marks, and acquiring another question mark for their lineup would raise more questions about the team, it’s certainly a flyer the organization is keen on taking. In a mailbag via The Athletic, it was confirmed the Yankees scouted the 25-year-old phenom, it was also stated that the Yankees scout everybody; however, a report from yesterday suggests their interest is pretty serious.
According to a KBO in English account on Twitter (@KBO_ENG), the Yankees are “heavily scouting” the left-handed outfielder and are prepared to make a “serious” offer. No other outlets have confirmed the rumor, but with the Yankees’ preliminary interest confirmed prior, could the Bronx Bombers dip into the international market to find a solution in the outfield?
What Would the Yankees Be Getting in Jung-Hoo Lee?
Jung-Hoo Lee is considered Korea’s top hitter, putting up incredible numbers, especially since the start of the 2020 season. The power has fluctuated mightily, slugging a career-high .575 in 2022 before it dipped to .455 in 2023, although an ankle injury cut his season short while he was really heating up. His prized skill has been an incredible ability to create contact, a skill that Brian Cashman and the front office may view as essential for their lineup, alongside his youth and long-term viability, especially considering the “change” the Yankees continue to talk about.
It’s clear that home runs win in October, but having somebody who can hit for a higher average, thus leading for a higher on-base percentage, is something that the team might look into following a 2023 campaign where they ranked in the bottom five in all of baseball in both measures. Lee also does have an ability to hit the ball hard, with a 92 MPH Average Exit Velocity in the World Baseball Classic, albeit in a small sample size, and in 2022 he hit 23 HRs and 36 2Bs in 142 games.
The approach in the Korean Baseball scene differs mightily from Major League Baseball, and that’s important to note when judging a player’s approach when they come over to the United States.
Lee has steadily added more power to his game as the years have gone by, and with the short porch in rightfield and a more strikeout-accepting league, he could increase his game power output enough to round out his approach a lot better. We don’t know enough about his raw power for us to reasonably conclude one way or another that he can repeat the 20+ HR performance he had in 2022 at the Major League level, but we can assume that the contact skills will be incredible regardless of where he plays.
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With a Swinging Strike Rate that hasn’t gone higher than 3.2% in the four years that FanGraphs has tracked the metric, Lee’s barrel control is remarkable, and it’s why he’s struck out under 6% of the time in each of the past two seasons. Strikeouts are less prominent in the Korean Baseball Organization (17.7%), which makes sense considering their high averages and lower slugging numbers (.374 SLG%), but it’s still evident that Lee is Korea’s top player. Known as the “Grandson of the Wind”, his father was a legendary player in the KBO and former MVP, known as the “Son of Wind”.
Coming off of a “down” season where he still put up a 139 wRC+, it’s the 2021-2022 numbers that really stand out as his best and most enticing data. Between a 162 wRC+ and .438 OBP in 2021 and then the aforementioned 2022 power surge that led to a 175 wRC+, this is a player who certainly has the talent and left-handed swing to pan out in the Majors, and the Yankees could add him to their young core.
The KBO is considered between Double-A and Triple-A, and so it should be noted that he’ll face much tougher competition in the big leagues, but we’ve seen guys like Jasson Dominguez and Austin Wells come up with limited experience in AAA and excel.
On the flip side of that, Anthony Volpe and Everson Pereira didn’t have that same immediate success following short stints in Triple-A, but Lee’s advanced age (25) and incredible bat-to-ball skills could present a much higher floor. He’ll have to adjust to higher velocity and a new travel schedule, but the talent is certainly there, now it’s a matter of the Yankees seeing what his price point could look like, and if they’re willing to be his top bidder.