South Korea, Japan and The MLB

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Orioles announced the signing of 17-year-old South Korean pitcher, Kim Seong-min, amidst little fanfare.

At least, little fanfare in the United States.

The Korean Baseball Organization, on the other hand, strongly rebuked the Orioles and Major League Baseball for “indiscriminately signing [Korean] players.” Kim was the nation’s top left-handed pitching prospect and was expected to join the KBO upon his completion of high school. Instead, he becomes just another face amongst the hundreds of young men from across the globe in Major League organizations who are all trying to realize a life-long dream of playing in the big leagues.

The Baltimore Orioles did not break any international free agency rules with this signing. The KBO used to have a draft, in which clubs retained rights to Korean players in high schools and universities. That practice was scrapped in 2009, however, and an open draft was installed. This caused South Korean players to be subject to the same international free agent regulations as every other country outside the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Free agents in South Korea can sign at 16-years-old, if they wish.

Thus, the outrage displayed by the KBO seems overwrought and misplaced. That is, until one reads the statement made by the KBO a bit further:

“If things do not change, we will either visit the MLB commissioner’s office in person, or team up with leagues in Japan and Taiwan to confront major league teams’ hegemonic rookie signings.”

Invoking Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league is no accident. Despite being well within the international free agency rules and regulations to sign teenagers out of Japan, Major League Baseball has largely been respectful of Japan’s amateur players, allowing them to play within their country before later courting them to the U.S. through the cumbersome posting process. Organizations rarely even scout amateur players in Japan.

Japanese amateur players also feel a strong sense of loyalty to Nippon Professional Baseball. No high school player has ever opted against the Japanese draft in favor of coming to the United States to sign with a Major League organization. Left-hander Yusei Kikuchi came close to breaking that barrier in 2009, but he ultimately declared for the Japanese draft.

The last amateur player to bypass Japan’s draft and sign with a Major League organization was Junichi Tazawa back in 2008. As mentioned before, though, no high school player in Japan has ever signed with a Major League organization. Instead, Tazawa was 22-years-old and had pitched for an independent league in Japan prior to coming stateside. A far cry from the teenaged bonus baby that is seen throughout Latin America and occasionally in South Korea.

The NPB’s Korean counterpart desperately seeks to have that same unwritten respect for their league. The KBO wishes to retain their homegrown talent — partially due to a deeply-rooted sense of nationalism and also due to a desire for the higher profit that comes with more talented players — and the league has largely been successful. After all, Kim is only the second high school sophomore to be signed by a Major League organization.

The letter of complaint by the Korean Baseball Organization will not amount to anything in terms of the Kim signing. The Baltimore Orioles will still retain the rights to the 17-year-old pitcher. What the KBO is attempting to do, however, is to draw a line in the sand and dissuade Major League organizations from signing more of the elite talent out of Korea. The league needs to look out for its own financial health — which is completely understandable — and it appears that the KBO has chosen the NPB as it’s model for success.




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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

12 Responses to “South Korea, Japan and The MLB”

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  1. Always Sunny in CP says:

    This kid shares my name and is 3 years younger than me

    …and I live in MD area

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  2. Eminor3rd says:

    Well, looks like Duquette’s plan for finding a market inefficiency may be foiled.

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  3. ChrisFromBothell says:

    With great programs like RBI ( founded and run by Cal and Billy Ripken), and so many schools in America struggling to fund sports programs, why the hell do ML organizations globe-trot to get new talent? I’m not disparaging the talent in other countries; the ability and potential is obvious and legit. I just wonder why no one has capitalized on the “market inefficiency” of training and recruiting from our own backyard, so to speak.

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    • LisbonMariner says:

      Actually there is a good reason why this is, and it isn’t some inherent preference for foreign-born players. Once an American kid graduates high-school, he is not a free-agent. He is elegible for the draft. So if the Orioles, for instance, set up a development academy in Maryland (like teams have in the DR or Venezuela), they don’t retain any contractual rights to those kids. Any team can draft them. Kids from any country other than the USA, Canada, & PR don’t enter the draft, so they can be signed as free agents.

      This isn’t market inneficiency, it’s just a result of the rules. Someone please correct me if I got the details wrong…

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    • Ronin says:

      Because there are a lot more laws regulating American/Canadian/Puerto Rican players than there are international players. For the most part international players are unregulated, easier to exploit assets. I imagine if international players had to be high school graduates and subject to a draft there would be a shift resulting in an increase in North American players being signed and a decrease in International players being signed.

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      • pft says:

        There are no laws regulating American workers/players over 16 except for jobs classified as hazardous (and those only up to the age of 18, and no requirement they be high school graduates).

        Just MLB rules.

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  4. Charles Krome says:

    Are players from Puerto Rico treated differently than those from the U.S.? I mean, it is technically part of this country.

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  5. Scout in Asia says:

    The article is also misleading calling Kim a sophomore. Korean high school lasts just 3 years, so in English, there is no “junior” year. He would have become a senior on March 1, so in effect, he was signed 6 weeks early. He was also arbitrarily redshirted one year, which happens in Korea all the time. The situation is not comparable to Bong’s at all.

    I’m glad the writer here was able to see the situation for what it is.

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  6. Brandon says:

    The outrage in this situation really puzzles me, as do a lot of the moves that the KBO and other professional sporting leagues in this country make. If the KBO is truly interested in growing, then this is an area they should utilize as advertisement. They should be saying, “We are proud of what we have done to baseball in our country raising it from nothing to a global heavy weight. We are disappointed to see one of our great young talents leave, but we are certain he will perform at a high level and make Korea proud.”

    However, since they didn’t do this, MLB teams should be shaking in their boots at the possibility that they ticked off this league. I can’t imagine there are many ownership groups in North America that bring more flow to the table then LG, Samsung, and Kia.

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    • jeff_bonds says:

      How can you be puzzled that professional leagues don’t do what you think they should do? You have zero knowledge about the situation, zero expertise in management of baseball leagues, zero understanding of the impact of talent drain on these particular leagues and on professional sports in general.

      But of course, they should be thankful that we are taking their best players. It would be crazy if they weren’t.

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