Seong-Min Kim, Korea, and the International Draft

Yesterday evening, Roch Kubatko of MASN announced the most unexpected: The MLB had voided the Baltimore Orioles‘ contract with 17-year-old South Korean pitcher Seong-Min Kim.

Kim had signed with the Orioles earlier this year, but the $550,000 signing almost instantly sent the peninsula into an icy rage. The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) decried the MLB for not affording it the same unspoken courtesies as Japan’s NPB league. This week, the MLB, the Orioles, and the KBO have taken the tack of calling the signing a “breach of protocol.”

Which is funny because:

Protocol, by definition, is official. Yet this signing hoopla is about an unofficial rule: You don’t take amateur talent from East Asia (or at least Japan and South Korea). For the Orioles’ breach (which has been officially undone now), the KBO outlawed Seong-Min Kim (on February 8) from playing in Korea (that may/should be rescinded), and they have forbid the Orioles from sending scouts to South Korea (that does not appear likely to be rescinded).

In a shame-based culture such as Korea’s, a social breach such as this, however unintentional, can leave a damaging, lasting, and — to Americans — overzealous impression, and that is bad news for the Orioles.

But there is even a bigger issue here, that of the differing expectations and standards in the international market for talent. Because while the KBO complains about MLB teams snatching away talent from the amateur levels, the Puerto Rican baseball community has begun to complain about the opposite issue.

In mid January, the New York Times published an article about the decline of baseball in Puerto Rico. The article interviewed past and present Puerto Rican players, as well as Mets GM Sandy Alderson — who worked in the MLB front office, dealing with this very matter. The ultimate claim of the article? Just look at the title: “Puerto Rico Traces Baseball’s Slide to the Draft.”

Many in the Puerto Rican baseball establishment claim the MLB’s decision in 1990 to include Puerto Rico in the MLB draft has undermined the success of the nation’s development of the sport. Among other troubling signs, the national baseball league is shrinking, the international competitiveness of its teams are dwindling, and the number of Puerto Rican MLB athletes has stagnated.

Why is the draft at fault? Here’s the logic:

    PR added to draft.

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    No contracts until after high school.

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    No team-run academies in PR.

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    Limited success in international PR baseball.

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    Limited success of national PR baseball.

Or something like that. The basic idea is this: The ability for teams to come and sign away the youngest players or the most talented players is what helped Puerto Rico succeed in the past. In other words, they have the exact opposite problem as South Korea.

South Korea’s baseball economy is relatively thriving — their national league even draws American talent, MLB veterans. The KBO wants greater organization, whether they state it explicitly or not; they would probably prefer an international draft — assuming the rules stipulate the player must be first given permission by the KBO to become draft eligible.

For Korea and Japan, it makes sense to hold onto amateur talent, to vet them first in their own professional leagues. For Puerto Rico, the Wild Wild West of free agency is a breath of fresh air, it encourages teams to invest in academies — give young Puerto Ricans an education and a shot at the Bigs.

Currently there is only one MLB academy in Puerto Rico — because there is no incentive to train youngsters who might, after years of cultivation, just get drafted by another team — and that one academy sounds, at least in the NY Times article, somewhat uninspiring.

Sandy Alderson, however, suggests the amateur draft was not the lone culprit:

    “From a socioeconomic standpoint, things have changed quite a bit in Puerto Rico,” [Alderson] said. “There are lots of other ways to spend your time. In the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, unfortunately, poor kids who are playing ball and who are from the lowest economic strata in that country, baseball is a way to escape, so there’s a greater concentration of players and effort. I think they’re just very different dynamics than Puerto Rico.”

Indeed, a cursory look at the GDP per capita of major baseball nations gives us an incomplete, though intriguing look at the baseball socioeconomic landscape. It appears we have two main groupings of international talents: Mills and Farms. (And if these terms make you uncomfortable, make you think of imperialism, then please know that is not an accident.)

Mills are essentially nations with built-in vetting systems — they have strong educational foundations, so the MLB cannot offer anything in the way academies, and they have rich and successful high school and professional leagues (or they are Canada). The players to leave these countries are older and more near finished products (like how a mill produces finished or near-finished goods).

Meanwhile, the Farms have lower GDPs and generally worse-off, less-dynamic and diverse economies. Baseball is indeed an escape. The players who leave the farms countries (which literally tend to rely on farming economically) often require more time and patience (like farming requires time and patience and cow tipping to pass the time).

But for Puerto Ricans — who are American citizens and have an economy more predisposed towards success and an opportunity to easily (if not cheaply) move to America to seek additional opportunities — the incentive to play baseball is considerably smaller.

Also, and this is a matter I have discussed and pondered at length, there is the whole baseball culture thing. Some nations have a baseball frenzy, others do not. This amorphous, unknown, qualitative factor seems to largely determine the amount of talent a nation funnels into baseball. Puerto Rico, given it’s size, produces a surprisingly large amount of baseball talent.

So, if the MLB does entertain the notion of an international draft, it must do so fully recognizing the distinct groups of talent and markets for talent in other nations. The draft in Puerto Rico does not seem to have stopped the pipeline of talent, but it may have adversely hurt the nation’s baseball institutions, which hurts national interest, which hurts the MLB.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


18 Responses to “Seong-Min Kim, Korea, and the International Draft”

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  1. Always Sunny in CP says:

    Never thought my name would be a part of the Fangraphs article title someday

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  2. jeff_bonds says:

    Since you are so good at Googling, you might as well have checked to see if “unspoken protocols” is a phrase in common usage.

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    • Llewdor says:

      Common usage doesn’t change formal definitions.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        The OED defines ‘protocol’ as: “In extended use: the accepted or established code of behaviour in any group, organization, or situation; an instance of this.”

        Protocol is an outcome of both formal rules and informal norms. Using some random browser dictionary is not a wise way to define terms.

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  3. Nate says:

    Minor correction: You wrote “KOB” in the second paragraph and it should be “KBO”.

    They’re what, the 3rd best league in the world (after MLB and NPB)? The sport is doing so well there that the league is adding at least one expansion team in the near future. I witnessed their national team embarrass the US team of All-Stars in the ’06 WBC. Personally, I think they’ve earned the right to have control over their domestic talent. If we want baseball to continue to grow internationally, we’re going to need strong national leagues like NPB and KBO to support that growth.

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  4. Ty says:

    That Google Dictionary extension is seriously my favorite thing in the world.

    SO handy.

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  5. delv says:

    Venezuela depends on oil

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      And Mexico has the 13th largest economy in the world and agriculture accounts for…….3.9% of the GDP!

      But its easy to simplify foreign countries.

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  6. marc w says:

    Are you sure about this: “Yet this signing hoopla is about an unofficial rule: You don’t take amateur talent from East Asia (or at least Japan and South Korea).”

    Teams sign amateur talent from Korea every year. The M’s signed Shin-Soo Choo and his high school teammate Cha-Seung Baek back in 1998. They signed Seon-Gi Kim in 2009. There’s no basis for assuming that Korean high-schoolers are somehow “off limits.” The Orioles clearly broke some sort of rule, but merely offering a contract to this kid probably isn’t the issue, I don’t think.

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  7. Todd says:

    Also, according to the Sun (Eduardo Encina) and other sources the contract was not technically voided. It was delayed 30 days, after which the Orioles are expected to sign the player.

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    • Nathan says:

      Maybe this kid has a lot of potential so the KBO really wants to get him. Once he is in their system their free agent rules completely strip away all leverage the players have. Who knows? Has there been an Internet petition in Korea demanding that the kid commit suicide for signing with Baltimore over the KBO? Pretty soon it will be widely known that if you fall asleep with an Orioles hat on you will die.

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  8. Chris in Hawaii says:

    “they have forbid the Orioles from sending scouts to South Korea”

    Not exactly true. They have banned Orioles scouts from KBA sanctioned games. They can have scouts in Korea, they just can’t scout those events.

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    • Johnny Slick says:

      Isn’t that functionally the same thing? “Sorry, Mister Scout. We’re not saying you can’t come here, we’re just saying you can’t come here and do your job.”

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  9. bender says:

    Wasn’t Junichi Tazawa signed amatuerly out of Japan?

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  10. Drew says:

    The issue they that the KBO is mad over is that they signed a kid who has not graduated high school yet.
    MLB clubs are allowed to sign amateur players who are in their graduating year, who then join the minor league system after graduating.

    The system for the KBO is to include those players in the draft and teams are allowed to pick them. The team that picks a player who has chosen to go to the US, has the rights to that player should he ever return and decide to play in Korea.
    I assume they don’t like losing some of their more talented high school prospects but the system is set up that way and works fine because some players decide to reject MLB offers and play in the KBO.

    I dont really like the tone of this article. It seems a bit condescending in the way it portrays Korea and the KBO. Sorta like, MLB signed one of their better young prospects and they are complaining and throwing a fit to keep him.

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