The Korean team in the 2017 Classic is missing a number of its biggest potential contributors from the lineup, and will need some big performances from its top contributors. Few will have more pressure on them than Kia Tigers outfielder Hyung-Woo Choi, who Korean fans hope will make up for the absence of Korea’s MLB stars. So let’s take a look at Choi, and how he came to be one of the top sluggers for the Blue Goblins.
Hyun-Woo Choi’s story is not one of the meteoric rise of a hyper talented player to his expected and rightful place of greatness, but rather one of the value that accrues to the dedicated and tireless with a bit of luck. Choi’s baseball story begins at Jeonju High School in North Jeolla province, where Choi competed as a solid, if unspectacular backstop for his high school club. Although he was not regarded as an elite prospect, he managed to garner enough attention from KBO clubs. Choi was selected in 6th round of the 2002 2nd player draft by the Samsung Lions. The Lions liked Choi’s strong arm behind the plate, as well his left handed bat for a catcher. Choi struggled with the defense and pitch calling aspects of being a catcher, and his bat never really caught on with the Lions KBO Futures League club (the Korean equivalent of the minor leagues). He appeared in only 2 games over his 3 year stint with Samsung, and, following the 2005 season, was released.
Unable to catch on with any of the KBO teams or their Futures League affiliates, Choi managed to draw the attention of the Korean Police Baseball team, a semi-professional club which competes in the Futures League. But, in order to sign with the club, Choi had to be willing to make the difficult switch from catcher to corner outfielder, as there was no opening behind the plate. Choi worked hard to become a solid outfielder, and he seemed to turn the corner at the plate. At the end of the 2007 season, Choi was named to the Korean team which participated in the Baseball World Cup that year. He performed well enough that his original club, the Samsung Lions, decided to take a flier on him, and Choi found himself back in Lions blues.
Returning to the KBO as a semi-regular outfielder, the 25-year-old Choi finally hit his professional stride. He posted a respectable .276/.364/.487 line over 384 turns at bat, and belted an impressive 19 home runs. Now established in the league, Choi would go on to raise his OBP and SLG in each of the succeeding seasons, culminating in a 2011 season that saw him post an excellent .340/.427/.617 line, and led the league in HR (30), RBI (118), SLG (.617), total bases (296). Choi continued his high level play, but was passed over for the national team in the WBC in 2009 and 2013. In 2016, however, Choi had a monster season in the KBO which ensured that he would get his chance in Korean powder blues. Choi batted an outstanding .376/.464/.651, each of which was a career high, and the batting average led the league. He cracked 31 homers, led the league with 144 RBIs and set a KBO record by smacking 46 doubles.
Standing 5’10’’ and weighing 233 lbs, Choi has a stocky build which betrays his early days as a catcher. A left-handed swinger, Choi holds his bat high, with his hands medium away from the body. As the pitch approaches the plate, he shows a pronounced leg kick with his stride foot, one which is characteristic of many batters who come to the US from Korea, or from East Asia more generally. Choi has a short and powerful downward swing, but he manages to keep the bat through the strike zone and make solid contact. In the outfield, Choi is not the most fleet of foot, as would be expected from a former catcher, but he has a powerful catcher’s arm which has led to a boatload of outfield assists and gold gloves in 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2016.
After the 2016 season, Choi became a free agent and signed the KBO’s first ever 10 billion won (roughly 8.5 million dollars) contract with the Kia Tigers. He was likewise named to Korea’s roster for the 2017 WBC, his first chance to represent his national with a full national squad (the 2007 World Cup team was essentially a B squad). Because Choi’s blossoming in the KBO happened later in his career, MLB teams have never looked seriously at the outfielder, since they would have been playing top dollar for a player who was on the older side. But Choi is still an excellent slugger who, if money and contracts were no concern, could play big league caliber ball in MLB. So try to take a look at some of the Pool A games to get a look at one of the great baseball stories of determination and perseverance, and also a great baseball player.