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yankee refsnyder

First Half Grades for Korean Major Leaguers

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

As the second half of the 2015 MLB season underway, here’s a look at how the players of Korean descent fared in the big leagues until now. It’s a mixed bag, filled with disappointments but also plenty to cheer for, especially with the newcomers.

Shin-soo Choo

 

shinsoochoo

Outfielder, Texas Rangers
An Expensive Disappointment
Grade: D-

With great power comes great responsibility. With a hefty contract comes heavy expectations, and Shin-soo Choo just looks like dead weight out there.

It hurts to write that, as Choo worked tirelessly to get back into game shape after injuries made his first year with the Rangers a forgettable one. But year two of a 7-year, $130 million contract isn’t faring much better, and in fact, it looks worse: His slash line of .221/.305/.384 for the first half is the worst of his career since his major league debut in 2005.

He’s a far cry from the player who made getting on base look easy just a few years ago with the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds. At 33 years old, Choo isn’t the youngest player on the roster, but this drop-off hopefully isn’t due to aging.

The Rangers are reportedly even considering trading him in the upcoming offseason. The team is full of left-handed hitters and the outfield is crowded, so it’s quite possible Choo might be palying elsewhere in 2016. We’re rooting for a stronger second half, whether it boosts his trade value or actually helps the Rangers get back into the AL West race.

See Also: KoreAm’s August/September 2014 Cover Story on Shin-soo Choo

Jung-ho Kang

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 11.06.27 AM(Photo via Pittsburgh Pirates/Instagram)

Third Baseman, Pittsburgh Pirates
The New Kid on the Block
Grade: A

Who would’ve thought the first-year player with so many question marks would end up being the most consistent on our list halfway through the 2014 season? Kang, 28, had important questions attached to his 4-year, $16 million contract: Could he hit MLB pitching? Would he get enough playing time behind starter Josh Harrison, and if he did, would his defense be a liability? And the most important one: Is his leg kick too much?

The numbers speak for themselves. In 72 game appearances (53 starts), Kang is hitting a respectable .268/.348/.384 with four home runs and 29 RBI. His offensive WAR is measured at 1.4, which is decent for someone who didn’t have consistent playing time early in the season. Kang has appeared primarily at third base on defense, but did start 16 games at shortstop, and he’s held his own—his 0.3 defensive WAR looks better than Harrison’s negative 0.3 dWAR. And by the way, #thatlegkick.

Kang has started at third base since early July, when Harrison was sidelined with a thumb injury. Coming into the All Star break, Kang hit safely in nine of his last 10 starts while slotted in at clean-up, batting .293 (12 for 41) in that span with one double, two triples and seven runs scored. His surge matches the Pirates roaring into the break and going 8-2 in the last 10 games; they are now just two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the division lead.

Here’s hoping we see Kang and the Pirates in the playoffs come October.

See Also: Jung-ho Kang Heating Up, Keeping Struggling Pirates Afloat

 

Hank Conger

Hank Conger
(Photo via Getty Images)

Catcher, Houston Astros
The Really Nice Dude Who You Can’t Not Like
Grade: B

As an Angels fan, it hurt to see fan-favorite Hank Conger, aka PandaCrusher35, be traded away. It hurt just as much to see the Houston Astros charging out of the gate in the American League West, but that pain is subsiding just a bit as the Astros did a full face-plant going into the All-Star break, ending up half a game behind the Angels.

By the way, Conger has some twerking skills.

Of course, I’d like to see Conger be successful wherever he goes, and a look at his numbers shows he’s doing slightly better across the board with roughly the same amount of playing time as last season in the role of backup catcher. Conger started in 60 and 70 games in 2013 and 2014, respectively; this year, he’s started in 27 games behind Jason Castro.

Conger is walking more this year, reflected in his on-base percentage (.339) and slugging (.434), which are at the highest of his career. Even with less playing time compared to the last two years, Conger is on track for the highest single-season WAR of his career (currently sitting at 0.9). The only knock is his defense this year—the 6 percent caught-stealing percentage is far below the league average of 36 percent.

Apart from that last bit, you can’t expect much more from a backup catcher. Conger came into the league offense-first, and he’s slotted into his role serviceably. As an Angels fan, go Hank! But the team can stay in second place, please.

See Also: Hank Conger Traded to Houston Astros

Rob Refsnyder

 rob refsnyder flickr commons(Photo via Rob Hagerty and Flickr/Creative Commons License)

Second Baseman, New York Yankees
The Young’un with Big Shoes to Fill
Grade: To Be Continued

It’s hard not to get excited for Rob Refsnyder once you see past the pinstripes. That’s especially true for Yankees fans, who have been waiting for the next player to fill the hole Robinson Cano left in 2014. After getting called up on July 11, Refsnyder collected both his first big-league hit and home run at Fenway Park in the last game before the All-Star break. The best part: His family was in the crowd, and the hits came against the Red Sox.

Manager Joe Girardi won’t reveal what the team’s plan is for Refsnyder, but it isn’t a two-week trial. Even though the Yankees have a crowded roster, expect Refsnyder to get plenty of outings at second—though, the team will have to decide whether to keep the young player or send him back down to the minors.

One knock on his game has been his defense, but despite his first error in the major leagues on July 12 (13 errors at Triple-A), Girardi was happy overall, which bodes well. Offensively, Refsnyder has been pretty solid at Triple-A, hitting .290 with an on-base percentage of .387 and slugging .413—consistent with the numbers he put up last year after being promoted from Double-A.

Meanwhile, Refsnyder made his first start in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium on Friday night. Best of luck to the guy, pinstripes and all.

See Also: KoreAm’s August 2012 Feature on Robert Refsnyder

 

Hyun-jin Ryu

CS-Ryu-0813-3Pitching3

Starting Pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Hibernating Giant
Grade: N/A

The Dodgers were looking to fix the cracks in their armor after yet another playoff exit to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. After bolstering their infield with Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, the team was looking forward to another year of a pitching rotation anchored by reigning MVP and Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Ryu and newcomer Brandon McCarthy.

Ryu’s season ended before it began when he underwent left shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, and McCarthy became a Tommy John victim. However, the Dodgers have been able to keep first place going into the All-Star break because of their sheer depth of talent and surprising pitching performances from their non-Kershaw and Greinke starters.

The best-case scenario is that Ryu is back for spring training next year and that the shoulder doesn’t plague him in the future. Get well, and see you in 2016.

In the meantime, you kill time until April by reading the longest feature ever written on Hyun-jin Ryu by KoreAm’s Steve Han.

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Featured image via MLB.com (Screenshot)

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Ken Jeong

Ken Jeong Helps A-Rod ‘Apologize’ for Everything But PEDs at ESPYs

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez is in the process of repairing his image after more than 18 months away from baseball while serving a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. He has yet to apologize for his PED use though, and repairing his image is a tall task for someone who wasn’t popular with fans even before the suspension.

It’s helped that A-Rod is doing pretty well with the bat this year. As for off the field, Rodriguez appeared on stage at the ESPYs on Wednesday alongside none other than Ken Jeong, who announced that he was hired as an “official spokesman” to read an apology from the apparently repentant Yankee. And so, A-Rod apologized for many things … except the steroid use.

“To my fans, fans of baseball and to fans of fair play everywhere,” Jeong read, “I’m sorry.”

For PED use? Nope. The extensive list included a major spoiler from the recent season of Game of Thrones; California’s water shortage; Greece’s economic collapse; Shaq’s Icy Hot commercials; the cancellation of Community; the subsequent reordering of more Community episodes; to Knicks season ticket holders; gluten; and lastly, for shamelessly plugging Jeong’s new show, Dr. Ken.

Lastly, Jeong added, “To anyone who has watched The Hangover, I’m sorry you had to see Ken Jeong’s…” If you’ve seen the movie, you can infer the next bit.

See Also

 

KoreAm June 2011 Cover Story: “Ken Jeong Is Funnyman Rising”

ABC Picks Up Ken Jeong’s Comedy Pilot, Dr. Ken

Ken Jeong Says Hangover Role Inspired by Wife

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Ryuribe

The End of “Ryuribe”

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

Ryu Hyun-jin became Hyun-jin Ryu when he joined the Dodgers before the 2013 season, and with him came plenty of expectations and worries. Could Ryu find success as the first Korean baseball player to go directly to the major leagues from the Korean Baseball Organization? Would he be able to handle the workload of a full MLB season?

That’s a definite yes on the former, and a maybe on the latter. Ryu has been fantastic during the first two years of his contract, but we found out last week that he had been pitching the entire time with a bum shoulder. The injury caught up with him before the 2015 season, and he’s out for the year after undergoing surgery.

But no one could have seen “Ryuribe” coming. Ryu’s camaraderie with the (now former) Dodgers third baseman, Juan Uribe, was something out of left field, especially since both men don’t speak English particularly well. Somehow, they made it work, and their antics on and off the field testified to the chemistry of the team.

DETROIT TIGERS VS LOS ANGELES DODGERS(Photo via Dodger Insider)

Unfortunately, the Dodgers traded Uribe to the Atlanta Braves earlier this week. But the brotherly bond is strong, right? Long distance, whatever—they could make it work.

YouTuber Brian Quon uploaded a compilation of the best “Ryuribe” moments. If you’re a Dodgers fan, take a moment to reflect on these good times.

Juan+Uribe+Hyunjin+Ryu+Colorado+Rockies+v+n7g2irwzfZel(Photo via Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images North America)

The Dodgers will still hold their Juan Uribe bobblehead night on July 11. For now, fans can reminisce on what was perhaps Uribe’s most memorable moment while he was in Los Angeles: crushing the go-ahead home run in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves in the 2013 playoffs to advance to the National League Championship Series.

See Also

 

“The Longest, Most In-Depth Story Ever Written About Dodgers Star Pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu”

“Hyun-jin Ryu Pitched with a Shoulder Injury for Two Years”

“Hyun-jin Ryu Shows Off His Rapping Skills in Korean Commercial”

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Above image via USA Today

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Los Angeles Dodgers v St Louis Cardinals - Game Three

Hyun-jin Ryu Pitched with a Shoulder Injury for Two Years

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by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

Last Wednesday, Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu decided to undergo shoulder surgery to figure out what was wrong with his shoulder and shut himself down for the season. Ryu’s shoulder issues have flared up in his first two seasons with the Dodgers, and the surgery seemed like a good option with a long term goal in mind.

But at a press conference on Friday, Ryu revealed there was precedence for all his shoulder problems: He had been pitching the last two years with a torn labrum. Ryu and the Dodgers had known about the injury before the team signed the pitcher in the winter of 2012. They both knew, Ryu said, following the initial MRI the Dodgers asked him to undergo prior to the contract signing.

Through an interpreter, Ryu added that it was his decision to pitch, even though he was usually in pain. “I can’t really pick a certain date [when I pitched pain-free], but there were certain times without pain,” Ryu said.

Then-Dodgers general manager signed Ryu to a six-year, $36 million contract, along with the $26 million posting fee, despite knowing the nature of the southpaw’s shoulder. Still, the first two years have been a clear win on the investment, as Ryu slotted in comfortably and effectively behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and helped lead the Dodgers to consecutive National League West division titles, not to mention galvanized the Korean fanbase.

Zach Helfand at the Los Angeles Times noted the instances when Ryu’s shoulder issues first began coming into play: A “mysterious bullpen conclave” during the 2013 National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves before Ryu’s start, then his stint on the disabled list to begin the 2014 season with “shoulder inflammation” before being shut down in September.

Leading up to the 2015 season, the Dodgers shut Ryu down in March during spring training—this time due to “shoulder irritation.” Ryu was planning to return sometime in May or even June, but the team shut him down again when he didn’t show any improvement in arm strength.

Ryu still has a tough hill to climb—shoulder operations are considered much riskier than elbow procedures—but the Dodgers expect the pitcher to be ready for spring training next year. Manager Don Mattingly told the Los Angeles Times that after speaking with head athletic trainer Stan Conte, the damage to Ryu’s shoulder appeared to be “relatively minor.”

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Featured image via Yahoo News/Getty Images

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Hyun-jin Ryu Elects Shoulder Surgery, Most Likely Out for Season

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

Los Angeles Dodgers starting southpaw Hyun-jin Ryu has decided to undergo shoulder surgery on his injured pitching shoulder, which has kept him from playing at all this season. The team also officially announced this afternoon that Ryu will have an arthroscopic procedure tomorrow, performed by team surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache.

The latest MRI on Ryu’s shoulder did not show a torn labrum or apparent structural damage, according to ESPN. The surgery will be exploratory to identify what is causing the inflammation in the shoulder.

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman confirmed that surgery was being discussed as Ryu undergoes further consultation with team physicians. Friedman said the team was also preparing for the likely possibly of losing Ryu for the rest of the year.

The 28-year-old lefty aborted his first rehab attempt in March when he felt tightness in the shoulder during a bullpen session, in which his pitches were well-below his average velocity. When he’s been healthy the last two years, Ryu has been excellent, with 344 innings pitched of 3.17 ERA, with 7.7 K/9 against 2.0 BB/9.

For the boys in blue, Ryu would be the second starting pitcher to be lost for the year to surgery: Brandon McCarthy underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow earlier this year, and he isn’t expected to be back until midway through the 2016 season. The Dodgers will most likely be on the market for a starting pitcher to bolster the rotation. Most fans probably did not expect Carlos Frias and Mike Bolsinger to be mainstays when the season began, although both are pitching quite decently.

Ryu is currently in the third year of a six-year, $36 million contract with the Dodgers after being signed out of South Korea in 2012 for a $25.7 million posting fee. He’s owed $7 million annually from 2016-2018—just drops of water in a huge bucket for the Dodgers.

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Kang HR

Jung Ho Kang Heating Up, Keeping Struggling Pirates Afloat

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

“Jung-Ho-Ho and a bottle of rum!”

Pittsburgh Pirates fans first heard that line from their home team play-by-play announcer back on Sunday, May 3 when Jung Ho Kang the first home run of his major league career. The pressure’s been on Kang to live up to his four-year, $16 million contract before this season, and it hasn’t helped that Kang hasn’t seen too much playing time due to a logjam of infielders.

But as the 28-year-old South Korean has become more accustomed to the major leagues this season, we may hear more of “Jung-Ho-Ho” doing his thing.

“I’m impressed with his make-up,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I’m impressed with the mental strength that he’s shown and the discipline. There’s a lot going on with this guy.”

Kang has emerged as one of the most consistent hitters on a struggling Pirates roster—in particular, third baseman Josh Harrison—while also maintaining a solid presence on defense. This weekend, Kang had his fingerprints all over the Pirates’ series win over the league-best division rivals St. Louis Cardinals.

In game one of the series on Friday, Kang came in as a defensive sub late in the game, getting a hit and scoring a run as the Pirates’ rally fell short. The 8-5 loss was punctuated by a peculiar moment when Kang struck out in the eighth inning while standing outside of the batter’s box. Kang had asked for a timeout and began to back out, but the umpire did not grant him the time. The pitch was over the plate for strike three, and Kang didn’t seem too happy with the situation.

GTY 472649702 S BBN USA PAKang after the strikeout. He isn’t having it. Like, seriously. (Image via Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Things would change on Saturday, though, as Kang got the start and went 2 for 4 at the plate with a run scored. But he also got to be a part of baseball history on defense as the Pirates turned the first 4-5-4 (second baseman to third, back to second) triple play ever. The Pirates would beat the Cards, 7-5. Check out the crazy video below.

Kang was slated into the starting lineup again on Sunday, batting at the No. 2 spot for the first time. Wielding a hot pink bat in honor of Mother’s Day and breast cancer awareness, Kang kept his hot streak at the plate going, opening the scoring with a home run (the second bottle of rum for his career), then driving in the winning run with a single in the seventh inning.

By the way, you have to appreciate how the Pirates broadcasters say “Kang” with the proper Korean pronunciation. The Pirate’s pull-over throwback jerseys also look fantastic.

“As I’ve been playing in more games, getting more at-bats, my confidence is increasing,” Kang said through an interpreter after Sunday’s game. “The more pitches I see, the more control I have over the game. I’m going to do a better job with runners in scoring position, too.”

Kang has hit .429 in his last 35 at-bats, and he enters Monday’s game with a .333/.337/.521 line on the season. He’s also slated for this third-straight start in tonight’s game, and he’ll look to continue his hot streak 1/5th of the way through the long baseball season.

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Feature image via Pittsburgh Pirates Instagram

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Conger Astros

Hank Conger’s First Hit as an Astro Lifts Team to Extra-Innings Win

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

Houston Astro catcher Hank Conger hasn’t had too many opportunities to play early in the 2015 season, so it didn’t take long for him to capitalize on his first appearance last night in an extra-innings thriller against the Texas Rangers.

In fact, it just took one pitch. In his first at-bat in the top of the 14th inning, Conger swung at the first pitch he saw from Logan Verrett and sent it out into the right field bleachers over the head of Shin-soo Choo. That was Conger’s first hit and first home run of the season. The Astros took a 6-4 lead in what would become the final score.

Playing time has been hard to come by for Conger, with fellow catcher Juan Castro starting in front of him. Last night, Conger didn’t enter the game until the bottom of the 12th inning as a defensive sub after the Astros pinch-ran for Castro the inning before.

“I was just watching along with the game and trying to get the feel of the flow,” Conger told the Houston Chronicle. “I had a heads-up, ‘Hey, if he gets on, we might pinch-run for [Castro] here, so just get loose.”

Conger wouldn’t have played if it were not for Astro right fielder George Springer’s amazing game-saving catch in the bottom of the 10th inning. With the bases loaded, Springer leapt at the right field wall to rob the Rangers’ Leonys Martin of a walk-off grand slam.

You can watch Conger Hank hitting a two-run homer in the 14th inning here

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Featured image via USA Today

Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics

Shin-soo Choo Belts First Home Run of Season in Rangers Win

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

It must feel good to get the first one out of the way for Shin-soo Choo. The Texas Ranger outfielder isn’t known particularly for his power, but he hadn’t hit a home run in a major league game since August 23, 2014just days before his decision to undergo surgeries for his worsening shoulder and ankle put an early end to his injury-plagued season.

The South Korean clubbed a three-run home run against the Oakland A’s Thursday that put the Rangers up 8-0 in the fourth inning and ended the evening early for A’s starter Kendall Graveman. Choo finished 2 for 5 with two runs scored, helping the Rangers cruise to an easy 10-1 victory. Choo was 1 for 7 coming into the game with a double.

Choo batted second in the lineup Thursday as Rangers manager Jeff Banister continues to find a slot for him in the lineup. During spring training, the Rangers had him batting third, but he opened the season batting fifth. Last year, Choo was primarily batting leadoff until injuries to the team had him shifted around the lineup.

“I don’t think anybody wants to come to the park and change where they hit every single day,” Choo told Dallas News on Monday. “I know that I will have the same approach that I had last year wherever I hit. I’m going to swing at my pitch. Nothing is going to change.”

Shin-Soo Choo

Choo, 32, had the worst year of his career in 2014 as he struggled to play through injuries before prematurely ending his season. It was a very sour note for the Rangers and their fans, as they invested their hopes and a lot of money ($130 million over seven years) into the outfielder who was best known for his patient at-bats and ability to get on base. The Rangers finished at the bottom of the American League with a record of 67-95.

Choo began preparing for the 2015 season earlier than he ever had before in his career, vowing to make it a turning point in his career. “I’m sure the efforts I’m making now will pay off,” he said in December. “I no longer want to take any more criticism. At the end of the day, I’m sure all of the struggles I’ve been through [in 2014] will be remembered as times I feel thankful for after I overcome. I’ll regain the faith from fans who became frustrated from watching me struggle this year.”

The 2015 season is young, so Choo and the Rangers will have plenty of time figure things out. There’s not much reason to doubt his abilities and resilience that he has displayed throughout his careerbe sure to check out KoreAm‘s August/September 2014 cover story for a detailed look at the professional athlete who first came to the U.S. as an 18-year-old prospect from South Korea.

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Feature image via CBS Sacramento