Monday, April 03, 2006

On Safari

I wasn't going to do this yet. I wasn't going to get into the day to day box scores of everday players. It's just to much to keep up with, and I didn't feel I was up to the task frankly. A combination of factors has led me to make an exception in highlighting the Yomiuri Giants Korean slugger Seung Yeop Lee.

First, it has become impossible to ignore the show Seung Yeop Lee is putting on in front of the baseball world. He has put his name on the international marquee by breaking the Asian single season home run record in 2003 (56) and helping Bobby Valentine and the Chiba Lotte Marines win the Japan Series for the first time in 31 years. He fueled the Korean national team to a 6-0 record in the World Baseball Classic, hitting 5 home runs, before falling to Japan in the semi-final, and now has raced out of the gate for his new team with 2 home runs in 3 games.

Who is Seung Yeop Lee?

Lee was a 5 time MVP of the Korea Baseball Organization, primarily playing first base for the Daegu Samsung Lions. In 9 professional seasons in Korea, Lee hit .305 with an OPS of 1.024, including 324 home runs and 948 RBIs. After breaking the home run mark in 2003, Lee moved to Japan and the Chiba Lotte Marines.

His attempt to play in the Majors after his 2003 season in Korea fizzled when teams balked at giving him a free pass to the Show. Some critics of Seung Yeop Lee have cited his high impression of himself as one of the deterrents to a guaranteed Major League contract. It seems there were enough concerns about the level of competition he faced and his ability to produce against big leaguers that offers for Spring Training invites and minor league deals were all that he could garner for himself.

His first season in Japan was a disappointment by all accounts as he batted .240 with a .778 OPS and only 14 home runs in 100 games. He often looked overmatched against left handed pitching and showed very little of the skill that earned him the nickname "Lion King" in his days with Samsung. Last season, in 117 games, Lee posted solid numbers as he hit .260 with an OPS of .866, and slugged 30 homers and 82 RBIs. His play helped to secure the Japan Series and restored a bit of confidence in his already legendary reputation. Lotte declined to offer Lee a bigger contract and he opted to showcase his abilities in the famous Kyojin orange and black.

The World Baseball Classic offered the 29 year old an unprecedented chance to show his talent to the world. For the Major League Teams that shunned him, the Marines who couldn't meet his salary demands, and his new Tokyo benefactors, Seung Yeop Lee wanted to put on a show. That he did. No one thought the Korean club would move to the semi-final round of the tournament, and no one imagined that they would be there as the only undefeated team remaining. The 5 home runs, .333 batting average, gaudy 1.372 OPS, and 10 RBIs he produced in 7 games earned a spot on the All-WBC team and a new base of fans waiting to see what he would do next.

It seems that "The Lion King" has a lot to prove. He talks the talk and looks the part of the glitzy athlete, but he may be putting the cart before the horse in terms of his career goals. A bit of humility may just open the right door for him to break into the Majors, and a commitment to quietly destroying whatever pitching is in front of him would help to win over the critics. It's hard to put yourself back in the Rocky I mindset, when you've already made it to Rocky III in your home country.

Lee has been heard to say he wants the Yankees (who hasn't said that?) but I think it's far more likely that another good season in Japan will bring him offers from the Dodgers, Mets, or Angels.

For his part, he has rolled into the start of the 2006 Pro Yakyu season on fire. The momentum he gained from his WBC stardom has propelled him to a prolific debut on Japan's biggest stage. It is remarkable that a foreign born player is hitting #4 for the Giants, and it is even more remarkable that he is Korean. The ultra-traditional Tokyo club has been slow to adopt many of Japanese baseball's new ideas over the years, but have recently fallen behind in the standings far too often to continue their archaic ways. "The Lion King" is leading the way to a new era, and perhaps opening the eyes and wallets of a number of Major League teams.

There are plenty of people out there that choose to focus on Lee's weak points, and we certainly can't ignore them, but the only reason we're having the conversation in the first place is because he keeps hearing the knocks on him and manages to take his game to the next level. Stay Tuned.