Shin-Soo Choo and the question of Korean MLB “greatness”

As the MLB League Championship Series grind on, with no clear favorites and no number 1 seeds now remaining, how about a diverting question while we wait for the Biggest Dance? Will there ever be a Korean Hall of Famer?
SSG Landers v Lotte Giants
SSG Landers v Lotte Giants / Han Myung-Gu/GettyImages

I stumbled across this question on Reddit, which I do not generally read. It was apparently written for that website sometime in 2017, and before you start with a lecture about American presumption when there are multiple Halls of Fame or some such, what was meant is the American Baseball Hall of Fame. The Korean Baseball Hall of Fame is slated to open in 2026.

The mini-expansion of the question was even more interesting, particularly the remark “there are virtually no great/solid Korean players in the history of MLB.” Weirdly, though, this view was directly contradicted, in part, in the very next sentence, when the questioner called a Korean player “solid,” but hey, you know ... Reddit.

Still, some U.S. fans may be saying, “Well, how many players from Korea have played in our major leagues? A dozen? 15?”

In fact, 28 Korean-born players have clocked service time in MLB according to Baseball Reference, 12 position players and 16 pitchers. Of them, four have been selected All-Stars once — Chan Ho Park, Byung-hyun Kim, Shin-soo Choo, and Hyun-jin Ryu. These four and Ha-Seong Kim are the only Korean players with career WAR scores of 10 or above, and Choo and Ha-Seong Kim are the only position players.

Three of these players have had 10 years of service or more: Ryu, 10 years, possibly still active at the age of 36; Choo, 16 years, possibly still active in South Korea at the age of 41; and Park, 17 years. He retired from MLB in 2010.

So, some might say, “Well, there you have it. What kind of numbers did Choo put up? How did Park do in the Hall of Fame voting? They must be the only ones really under consideration now.”

Park peaked at 17 percent in regular HOF voting, but some believe he deserves, minimally, consideration by the Contemporary Era Committee in 2029, as the pioneer Korean MLB player (April 8, 1994), and I might add, a pitcher with a lengthy, winning career.

Choo, the most valuable player and pitcher in the 2000 World Juniors that South Korea won, will be eligible for his first Hall of Fame vote in 2026. He likely doesn’t quite have the numbers for election (a MLB .275 career batting average, 218 home runs, and 782 RBI). He did have a quite respectable career .824 OPS.

Four of those five figures are better than Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s. Unlike Maz, though, Choo never hit a historic home run, and was not a great fielder.

The bottom line on the original question here is this: Of course, there will be a Korean-born Hall of Famer in Cooperstown. The first 29 years of these players’ MLB presence have produced two strong, borderline HOF candidates already.

Did the first 29 years of American MLB play produce two players who could do that well in current MLB games? Think about that a bit before you answer.

Who’s to say speedy Pirates infielder-outfielder and leadoff hitter Ji Hwan Bae won’t go off like a rocket? He’s only 24.