This Korean slugger is MLB's next big star

March 8th, 2023
Design by Tom Forget

TOKYO, Japan -- When Korea faces Australia on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET, the eyes of every Major League scout will be on one man: Korea's superstar outfielder Jung-Hoo Lee. The reigning KBO MVP Award winner is just 24 years old and can already be considered the complete package.

He hits for average and power, with a refusal to strike out that is positively DiMaggio-esque. Lee hit .349/.421/.575 with 23 home runs last season, and he struck out just 32 times in 627 plate appearances.

"He doesn't really have a lot of weaknesses as a hitter," Jeeho Yoo, a sportswriter for Yonhap News, told Yoo has been covering Lee since his Rookie of the Year-winning season in 2017 and has watched as his game has developed over the years and he's added power to his profile -- the one thing that was previously missing.

"They say he's a bad ball hitter, too," Yoo said. "You can find some clips on Twitter going around where he does these Vlad Guerrero Sr. impressions. Like, the ball bounces in front of the plate and he somehow makes contact and hits a double."

Even more impressive is how Lee stepped it up when the games mattered most.

"I even wrote an article during last year's postseason when [Lee's team] came all the way from the first round to the Korean Series and he didn't strike out until I think the fifth game of the Korean series," Yoo said. "Something like 60 plate appearances or close to it. He's not just getting choppers or dribblers. He's making solid contact and he doesn't strike out. He's just a very good hitter. I would say the best pure hitter in Korea right now."

That he can hit seemingly anything and everything shouldn't be a surprise: That talent is in his blood. Lee's father is legendary Korean shortstop Jong-Beom Lee. In 16 KBO seasons (with four more in Japan's NPB), Jong-Beom hit .297/.369/.458 with 194 HRs and 200 SB. In 1994, he nearly eclipsed the .400 mark, finishing the year just a few base knocks shy with a .393 average.

Jong-Beom's speed and whip-quick swing earned him the nickname, "Son of the Wind." It's only fitting, then, that Jung-Hoo has picked up the moniker "Grandson of the Wind," even though he originally struggled with lofty expectations while in his father's significant shadow.

"There was a little bit of pressure when I was younger," Lee said. "But growing up and becoming a professional, I think I got to embrace it. And it's a really cool nickname, so I'm just glad I was given it, actually."

Jung-Hoo Lee runs the bases

History will also be made in that first game: The two are believed to be the only father-son duo to both appear in a World Baseball Classic.

"Honestly, it's the first time I'm hearing that. I didn't expect it but I think it's awesome. It's an honor to have our family name out there and become the first to to do that," Lee said.

Amazingly, that's not the only baseball talent in the family: Lee's sister married LG Twins and Team Korea's closer Woo-Suk Go. Go dominated in the KBO last year, posting a 1.48 ERA with 42 saves for the Twins last year. Suffice to say, it's a veritable All-Star lineup at every family gathering.

"When my sister mentioned that she was thinking of marrying Go, I was like, 'Wow, he's one of the best closers Korea ever had," Lee said. "I was happy to hear they were getting married and I just congratulated her."

Fortunately, the two understand that no matter what happens on the field, at the end of the day they are still family.

"It's funny because when I got struck out by Go the past few years, he would text me and he'd be like, 'Oh, thank you,' And I'll be like, 'What are you talking about?' When I got hits off of him, I never texted him [to] say thank you or anything because that's just what happens in baseball," Lee said.

Woo-Suk Go on the mound

Despite the pedigree and skill, Lee is still known for being polite, thoughtful, and down to earth. He cares deeply about the Korean baseball fans who come out to the park.

Last season, Lee smashed a home run directly to two fans who held a sign that read, "Hey Lee! Hit one here!" When Lee found out, he made sure to gift the two friends some bats and autographed balls.

"He's good with the fans that way," Yoo said. "There was one incident where one of the fans got hurt by his foul ball. And he didn't find out until much later. When he learned of that incident, he made sure to reach out to the fan."

While Lee's next goal is to win the World Baseball Classic for Team Korea, he's got his sights set on coming to the Major Leagues at the end of the KBO season. His team has already committed to posting him and teams will likely be lining up to recruit the young outfielder. Assuming Shohei Ohtani opts out of his contract with the Angels and is free agent target No. 1, then Lee won't be far behind on every team's wishlist.

"Even though he hit 20-plus homers in the KBO last year, I think the concern is whether he can handle that 95-plus [velocity] on an everyday basis. Then you get to the bullpen, you see 100 mph," Yoo said. "You just don't get that kind of velocity in the KBO. So he's been working on a swing change to make sure he can handle those fastballs."

Kim's far from worried, though: He already has his sights set on loftier goals than simply making an Opening Day roster.

"Ha-Seong [Kim], my old teammate, has been doing fantastic in the Majors and I think what he's proven as a player and as a Korean player is that we have that fight in us and we never give up," Lee said. "I want to emulate him as a former teammate and a friend. When I get there, I want to plant the same kind of ideas to the fans. Personally, I want to lead the league in batting average and make history."