Written by: Justin Choi
Follow him on Twitter: @justinochoi
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Though much younger than the MLB, the KBO has a rich history that’s been written by the achievements of legendary players. To put them into context, I’ve decided to compare 5 KBO legends with MLB players that serve as their counterparts, both statistically and symbolically. Without further ado, here they are:
Dong-won Choi (최동원) = Sandy Koufax
Choi’s short but insane 5-year peak from 1983 to 1987 resembles that of Koufax. During that period, Choi was renowned for his deadly fastball-curveball combination, punching out hitters left and right. In fact, Choi still holds the KBO single-season strikeout record with 223 in 1984! Unfortunately, his ridiculous workload – exemplified by his starting games 1,3,5, and 7 of the 1984 Korean Series –ultimately took a toll and cut his career short. Still, like Koufax, he retired with mid-40 WAR and is considered one of the best pitchers in KBO history. If Koufax possessed the ‘Left Arm of God,’ perhaps Choi had God’s right arm.
Woo-ram Jung (정우람) = Trevor Hoffman
Woo-ram Jung is, without a doubt, the best KBO relief pitcher of all-time. In his lengthy 17-year career (which is still ongoing!), he has accumulated an impressive 31.2 WAR and a KBO record 169 saves. He also possesses the unique record of appearing in at least 50 games in 10 consecutive seasons. In short, consistency defines him. It’d be an honor to compare him to Mariano Rivera, but unfortunately, having dedicated his career to the mediocre-to-average SK Wyverns and Hanwha Eagles, Jung has little to no post-season heroics. Therefore, he reminds me of the ever-underrated Trevor Hoffman, a brilliant reliever with a similar fate.
Seung-Yup Lee (이승엽) = Albert Pujols
While Pujols was tearing up the Major Leagues in in the early-to-mid 2000’s, so was Seung-Yup Lee half the world away. A first baseman who hits for average and power? Check. Lee has a career batting average of .302 and the single-season record for home runs with 56. A face of the franchise? Check. Lee played with the Samsung Lions his entire career, and like Pujols, helped lead his team to a championship title. Numerous accolades that bolster a Hall of Fame candidacy? Check. if you think Pujols’ 3 MVPs are impressive, then Lee’s 5 should be too. No wonder they call him the Lion King!
Dong-yul Sun (선동열) = Cy Young
There’s a strong case for Cy Young being the best right-handed pitcher in MLB history. But there’s also a case for Dong-yol Sun being the best right-handed pitcher… period. Why? Sun’s 107.1 WAR lags behind Young’s 163.8, but the KBO only played around 108 games back in the 80s, when Sun was active. Less opportunities to pitch simply equals less WAR.
Furthermore, while Cy Young was an around-average stat accumulator in his later years, Sun managed to put up 9 WAR in his final KBO season, and instead of retiring afterwards, signed with the Chunichi Dragons and became a dominant closer.
What I’m certain about, however, is that in 1986, Sun pitched the greatest season is baseball history. That year, he had a 0.99 ERA backed up by a 1.16 FIP in 262.2 innings pitched. What did that add up to? An astonishing 15.1 WAR. But like I said earlier, that was achieved in only 108 games! If we convert 15.1 WAR into WAR/108, we end up with 22.7. Twenty-two-point-seven wins… from a SINGLE player.
The Hatae (now KIA) Tigers, whom Sun pitched for, won 67 games in 1986. Without Sun, there is no playoff berth, no eventual championship title.
Dong-yul Sun was the Haetae Tigers.
Jong-bum Lee (이종범) = Derek Jeter
Jong-bum Lee and Derek Jeter are the most well-known shortstops of all-time in their respective countries. You can ask any Korean adult who Jong-Bom Lee is and probably get a correct response.
Lee set the KBO on fire by hitting .393 and swiping 83 bags in just his second season. Due to his agility, he was nicknamed ‘The Son of the Wind’ and was universally loved by fans and the media. And similar to Jeter, he retired with a .297/.369/.458 triple slash and 67.7 WAR.
Just like Jeter, however, there are those who question Lee’s defensive capabilities. Some say that Lee committed too many errors, while others say that his range and arm strength made up for them. Regardless, Jong-bom Lee is a fantastic shortstop who defined the 90s and 2000s.