When Major League Baseball was on hiatus last year it created an opening for the Korea Baseball Organization to cultivate a larger fan following. Signing a deal to broadcast live games on ESPN all season long was a major breakthrough for the South Korean organization. The ESPN deal pushed them more into the American sports mainstream. At the same time, it allowed for fans who previously likely wouldn’t have sought out the international methods of watching the KBO to discover a new grouping of exciting and very talented players. One of those players was NC Dinos star, Sung-bum Na.
Na had first made it known that he wanted to test the MLB waters in 2019. Unfortunately, that year he suffered a gnarly knee injury after only 23 games and missed the rest of the season. It was a major setback, not just for his KBO career and the Dinos, but especially for a player looking to be posted as an international free agent. At the onset of the 2020 season, Na again reiterated that he wanted to be granted the opportunity to go to MLB come the end of the season. The only obstacle in his way was showing that the knee injury didn’t matter in the long term. The right fielder needed to produce at a level equal to or greater than he had before the injury to keep MLB teams in on the idea of him as a major signing.
All Na proceeded to do was have one of his best years as a professional while guiding the Dinos to their first-ever Korean Series title. Na slashed .324/.390/.596 in 584 plate appearances. He was on fire from the beginning of his 2020 campaign until the very end. By hitting for a high average as well as taking a few free passes here and there Ma accumulated a 152 WRC+. He smacked 34 home runs, produced a .272 ISO and a wOBA of .432. All in all, he ended the year with a 5.1 kWAR and left little doubt that he was one of the best players in all of the KBO.
The question for someone like Na is how will his KBO numbers translate to American ballparks. There have been more than a handful of great KBO players who have come to MLB and have struggled. About the same amount have succeeded, but people tend to focus more on the struggles of a group of players than they do the successes. If that is what you are basing your judgment of Na on then you need to rethink your approach to him. Na is neither the players who struggled or succeeded. He is his own person with faults and strengths that are all his own.
The strengths are obvious and have been on display his entire KBO career. He has legit corner outfielder power combined with a bat that is geared to make hard contact with plenty of loft. Na isn’t a speedster, but he’s no worse than average on the basepaths. As a corner outfielder, he has a good arm and good instincts. Na has a natural ability on the diamond that can’t be denied. His abilities haven’t let him down yet.
Na’s flaws are less apparent, but they are present. He is a contact first hitter. He’s never walked at a high clip and while last year did see him produce his best power numbers in his career he also jumped to a career-high in K%, 25.3. The worry over Na isn’t that he doesn’t have adequate power for the big leagues. It’s that he will sell out too often to prove that he does have adequate power. Without a walk rate to support such an approach, there is the possibility he could end up as someone who strikes out at an unsustainable rate.
There is every possibility that Na ends up in the latter category, but I’m thinking he succeeds far more than he fails. He will have learning pains and there will be days when his fans will be just as frustrated as the player himself. The key is that Na possesses both the tremendous raw skill and baseball acumen that typically results in success at the major league level. Some team is going to pay a less than adequate amount for Na’s services. In return, they will get production from their new right fielder that will greatly outpace the money he is being paid. Na is coming to MLB and he’s going to leave his mark for many years to come.