There’s something that should probably be acknowledged from the beginning. The Mariners have signed Dae-ho Lee to a minor-league contract. Mostly, we ignore players signed to minor-league contracts, at least before the start of spring training. The thing about Lee is that he might be a good hitter. We’ve paid very little offseason attention to, say, Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez, who are proven above-average hitters. There’s a bias here, because Lee feels more interesting, on account of the fact that we don’t know quite what he is. Lee, in other words, is sort of a prospect, even though he’s 33 years old, and while the majority of prospects establish low ceilings, it’s fun to wonder before the establishing begins.
I don’t know if Lee is a better player than Alvarez, who is in his 20s, and who has 6 career WAR. I do know that it’s more fun to think about and write about Lee, compared to Alvarez. Maybe that’s not fair to Pedro Alvarez, but, you know what, Lee is in the news today, and this is his post, and it seems like he can do some neat things. I can’t worry all the time about fairness.
The basics: as noted, Lee is in his 30s, and he stands 6’4. He’s previously weighed as much as 280 – 300 pounds, and while he’s reportedly slimmed down some of late, you can already make educated guesses about his athleticism, and he is indeed a first baseman and DH. He bats right-handed, and though he hails from South Korea, and though he’s played in — and dominated — the KBO, he spent the last four years hitting well in Japan. He’s coming over because he’s long dreamed of getting a shot in the majors, which is not uncommon, and which leads some players to take less money here than they would’ve gotten elsewhere. Lee is making that sacrifice, in exchange for a chance at the highest level.
It’s true that nothing much is guaranteed. According to reports, Lee could make a maximum of $4 million if he performs well in the majors, but for now it’s officially a minor-league contract with a spring-training invite. I wouldn’t worry about that getting in the way. Lee had multiple suitors, and he wouldn’t have signed with the Mariners if they didn’t make some assurances he’ll have a clear path. I’m guessing they just didn’t yet want to deal with 40-man-roster ramifications, but for Lee to reach the majors, he just has to beat Jesus Montero, Gaby Sanchez, Stefen Romero, and Ed Lucas. That’s the competition for being Adam Lind‘s right-handed partner.
Which is the fit, here. Lee wouldn’t line up to play every day. He’d be a part-time first baseman, behind Lind, and a part-time DH, behind Nelson Cruz. So if Lee wants to play regularly, he’ll need to produce, and he might need some other player on the roster to disappoint. Lee, though, has been led to believe this is the best opportunity. So now we can talk some about his performance.
To me, the easiest way to do this is by embedding a plot. You can always just look at Lee’s overall numbers in Japan, but the league context is less familiar. So here you can track how Lee has done in four statistics over the last four years, against the Japanese average. There’s batting average, isolated power, unintentional walk rate, and strikeout rate.
If you look at the picture overall, this should be the takeaway: Lee has been excellent. He’s walked more than the average, he’s struck out less than the average, he’s posted a high batting average, and he’s hit for a strong amount of power. It won’t surprise you to learn Lee hasn’t tripled in three seasons, and he hasn’t stolen a base in four. He’s also grounded into a high number of double plays, because he just isn’t quick. I can’t imagine he’s a defensive asset, nor can I imagine he’s a plus on the bases. The whole focus is on Lee as a hitter, and he has an intriguing blend of proven power and quality discipline.
You know who’s been a close major-league equivalent the last few years? If you just compare ratios of performance over average, Lee has basically hit like the Japan version of new teammate Nelson Cruz. Which is not to say that Lee is as good as Nelson Cruz, but that’s what he’s done somewhere else. He’s kept his strikeouts in check, which is unusual for a powerful hitter, and the Mariners have made a show of emphasizing the importance of strike-zone control. You can see what drew them to Lee, and you can imagine the upside.
This is a highlight reel that’s been making the rounds. As always, highlight reels leave an awful lot out, like, for example, non-highlights. All we see are a bunch of home runs, and we don’t see Lee getting fooled, nor do we see how he develops his plan. But anyway, if you watch that video, you see a good number of towering flies. Lee definitely has his “normal” style of home run, but there are a few in there I can’t help but embed. Here’s a home run that gets out in the blink of an eye:
In 2016 parlance, that’s a dinger with a high exit velocity. For something very different, consider the following 0-and-2 swing:
That’s not a full hack — that’s a defensive hack, a two-strike hack, and Lee didn’t fully rotate his hips. Still, he drove the ball out the other way. That suggests he’s really quite powerful, and it also hints at a way Lee has been able to keep the whiffs down. Finally, I don’t even know what to say about this crap:
That’s a nonsense home run. I just wanted you all to see it. I don’t know what it means. I just know that it happened.
There are forever the usual concerns. Don’t know how Lee will adjust to the majors, don’t know how much power will carry over, etc. In this case, also, we pretty much know the value ceiling is limited because Lee is no one’s idea of speedy or versatile. But in general, it’s good to see more of these players being given an opportunity, and in specific, Lee is of interest because he’s shown he can hit for power while controlling the zone, and that’s not an easy skillset to track down. Provided things go according to plan, Lee will get a shot to apply his skills to match-ups against big-league lefties. And if he handles those well enough, it stands to reason his role would expand. Maybe he really is no better than Pedro Alvarez, but unlike with Pedro Alvarez, Dae-ho Lee hasn’t proven that yet. Until the games start, he could still be almost anything.
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