Key dates in the history of Korean-born MLB players

March 11th, 2024

The 2024 regular season is upon us.

As part of the MLB World Tour, the Dodgers and Padres will begin the '24 season in the Seoul Series. The two NL West rivals will play a two-game set at Gocheok SkyDome in Seoul, South Korea. This series represents a continuation of South Korea's impact on the baseball world, including the influx of talented players making their way to the Majors.

With this in mind, here is a look back at some of the key dates in the history of Korean-born MLB players.

Jan. 14, 1994: Chan Ho Park signs with the Dodgers

Park's contract with the Dodgers was a monumental step forward for Korean-born players reaching the Majors. Park was just the second player from Korea to sign with an MLB team -- Park Chul-Soon signed with the Brewers in 1979 but never made it to the Majors. After landing a significant signing bonus of $1.2 million in January, the 20-year-old Park was expected to begin in the Minors, but a strong Spring Training earned him a spot on the MLB roster.

April 8, 1994: Park becomes first Korean-born player in Majors

When Park debuted against the Braves on April 8, he became the first Korean-born player to reach the Majors. While Park only threw a combined eight MLB innings across the 1994-95 seasons and spent the majority of his time in the Minors, he was a trailblazer for Korean-born players reaching the Majors.

April 6, 1996: Park records the first victory for Korean-born player

There was justifiably a lot of hype around Park when he debuted in 1994. It took a while, however, for him to establish himself as an MLB pitcher and cultural icon at the highest level. Nearly two years after Park debuted in the Majors, he recorded his first career win with a strong four-inning, two-run performance out of the bullpen against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Park would go on to post a 3.64 ERA (107 ERA+) across 108 2/3 innings in '96, kicking off an excellent six-year stretch for the Dodgers and becoming the first Korean-born player to reach the All-Star Game in 2001.

Nov. 4, 2001: Byung-Hyun Kim becomes first Korean-born player to win World Series

While Kim might have been scapegoated for blowing leads in Games 4 and 5 of the '01 World Series, he was an integral member of the D-backs' bullpen for most of the season. Across 107 2/3 innings in the regular season and postseason, Kim had a 3.09 ERA and punched out a whopping 123 hitters. The sidearm reliever was an invaluable part of a D-backs team that won the franchise's first World Series title, and he was even better in 2002, when he posted a 2.04 ERA and 36 saves while making the NL All-Star team.

Sept. 3, 2002: Hee-Seop Choi becomes first Korean-born position player in Majors

Park paved the way for Korean pitchers to make it to the Majors, but it took a while for position players to follow suit. Six pitchers debuted before Choi became the first Korean position player to make a splash in MLB. Signed to a $1.2 million contract with the Cubs just before he turned 20, Choi dominated the Minors with 82 home runs from 1999-2002 before he debuted with the Cubs late in the '02 season. Choi spent four years in the Majors, hitting 40 home runs with the Cubs, Marlins and Dodgers.

May 21, 2005: Dae-Sung Koo's unlikely sequence against Randy Johnson

For someone who threw all of 23 innings in one MLB season, Koo had quite the memorable game. In a Subway Series contest at Shea Stadium, Koo had one of the unlikeliest sequences ever against Randy Johnson -- one of baseball's all-time greats. Following a scoreless seventh inning in relief, Koo led off the bottom of the inning by scorching a double to deep center field. Koo then proceeded to score from second base on a bunt from José Reyes -- taking advantage of a vacated home plate and sliding headfirst just past a diving Jorge Posada.

June 12, 2005: Choi homers three times

In his final season in the Majors, Choi became the first Korean-born player to go deep three times in a game. Against the Twins at Dodger Stadium, Choi belted three solo shots, which proved to be the difference in a 4-3 victory. Choi also went on to participate in the Home Run Derby in Detroit that season, hitting five home runs in his lone round.

Nov. 22, 2010: Shin-Soo Choo receives MVP votes

Choo is unquestionably the most productive Korean-born MLB player, leading all players in Wins Above Replacement (34.6), home runs (218), hits (1,671) and stolen bases (157). He's just one of 21 players in the 21st century with at least 100 home runs, 100 stolen bases and a 120 OPS+. Choo burst onto the scene in 2008 and spent the next decade as one of the better position players in the Majors. In 2010, Choo became the first Korean-born player to receive MVP votes, finishing 14th after posting a 20-20 season and racking up 5.9 WAR for Cleveland.

Oct. 6, 2013: Hyun-Jin Ryu becomes first Korean pitcher to start postseason game

Ryu recently returned to the Hanwha Eagles -- his former KBO club -- after a decade of excellence in the Majors. Injuries unfortunately limited him to exceeding 100 innings in just five seasons, but when he was healthy, Ryu was one of baseball's best pitchers. Ryu signed a six-year, $36 million deal with the Dodgers before the '13 season and immediately provided big results (3.00 ERA and 3.5 WAR). The left-hander got the nod in Game 3 of the NLDS vs. the Braves, becoming the first Korean pitcher to get a postseason start. Eight days later in Game 3 of the NLCS, Ryu became the first Korean pitcher to record a postseason win.

July 21, 2015: Choo becomes first Korean player to hit for cycle

Firmly established as one of the best outfielders in the Majors, Choo had one of his most memorable games in his second season with the Rangers. Against the Rockies at Coors Field, Choo became the first Korean-born player to hit for the cycle. Fittingly, Choo needed a triple in the ninth inning to complete the cycle, and he delivered.

July 17, 2018: Choo becomes first Korean-born position player to reach All-Star Game

Looking back on it, it's a bit surprising that it took until 2018 for Choo to make his first All-Star team. Choo recorded six seasons of at least three WAR -- including a pair of five-WAR seasons from 2009-10 -- as well as three 20-20 seasons. While he was arguably snubbed on multiple occasions, Choo was ultimately rewarded in 2018 and became the first Korean-born position player to be picked for the Midsummer Classic. Choo returned to the KBO in 2021 and plans to retire after the upcoming season.

Nov. 13, 2019: Ryu finishes second in Cy Young Award voting

Ryu's pinnacle season came in 2019, when he finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting behind Jacob deGrom, thanks to a 2.32 ERA (179 ERA+) and 5.1 WAR in 182 2/3 innings. No Korean-born pitcher has ever finished higher in Cy Young or MVP award voting than Ryu, who also became the first Korean pitcher to start the All-Star Game that summer. This was right in the middle of Ryu's prime (2018-20), a time when his 179 ERA+ trailed only deGrom (188) among pitchers with at least 300 innings.

April 11, 2023: Bae, Choi become first Korean duo to hit homers in same game

When Ji-Hwan Bae launched a dramatic walk-off, three-run home run against the defending champion Astros, he helped create Korean baseball history. In the process, Bae and Ji-Man Choi became the first pair of South Korean teammates to homer in the same game.

Nov. 5, 2023: Ha-Seong Kim becomes the first Korean to win a Gold Glove

Kim became a fan favorite during the Padres run to the 2022 NLCS, and he took his game up a notch the following year. The infielder hit 17 homers, stole 38 bases and was worth 5.8 WAR in large part due to his contributions in all aspects of the game. He took home the Gold Glove award for the National League's utility infielder, accumulating nine Outs Above Average at shortstop, second base and third base. Kim's defense was so spectacular that the Padres opted to make him the full-time shortstop entering 2024 while moving Xander Bogaerts to second base.

Dec. 14, 2023: Jung Hoo Lee signs largest contract for Korean player

After seven strong seasons with the Kiwoom Heroes, Lee was posted during the 2023-24 offseason and signed a six-year, $113 million deal with the Giants -- the largest contract for a Korean-born player. Lee was appealing for many teams thanks to his above-average defense in center field and career .340/.407/.491 line during his time in the KBO. The Giants clearly thought highly of him and have penciled him in as their everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter right away in the Majors.