SK Wyverns right fielder Han Dong-min has come out of nowhere. Just over halfway into his fifth season in the Korean Baseball Organization, he has already posted career highs in every single offensive stat.
One thing that has changed for Han is playing time. This season he has a starting role for the first time in his career. But playing time alone cannot account for his stark difference in performance. In the first 179 games of his career, Han collected 2.11 wins above replacement level, a cumulative stat that attempts to quantify total player value. For those first 179 games, Han was a decent, if unremarkable, reserve outfielder.
However, in 91 games this season, Han has already collected 3.72 WAR. Among position players, he has been the fourth most valuable player so far in the 2017 season.
So what is driving this sudden increase in offensive production?
SK Wyverns right fielder Han Dong-min in a game on July 6, 2017. (Yonhap)
One of the main causes is Han’s increased plate discipline. He is swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone (23.8 percent in 2017 versus 30.2 percent in 2015). When he does swing, he has also made more contact, on both pitches in the zone (88 percent versus 82.3 percent) and outside the zone (59.6 percent versus 40.2 percent).
The effects of this newfound discipline can be seen on his strikeout and walk numbers. Prior to 2017, Han struck out in an alarmingly high 27.5 percent of his plate appearances, while only walking in 6.2 percent. In 2017, Han has drastically improved both of those figures, to 18.5 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively.
But while the plate discipline improvement helps explain Han’s overall offensive improvement, it doesn’t account for his power. As of July 25, Han was second in the KBO in home runs (27), fourth in slugging percentage (.638) and fifth in adjusted weighted runs created (159.7). Where has this sudden power stroke emerged from?
Part of it is simply that Han’s increased playing time has allowed him to grow more comfortable at the plate. However, another possible cause comes from Han’s batted-ball direction. The left-handed Han has always been a pull hitter, hitting over 40 percent of balls toward right field. In 2017, he has become uncommonly extreme, hitting over half of his batted balls (55.3 percent) toward right field. In the KBO, where defensive shifts are not yet commonplace, severe pull hitters like Han can adopt a pull-heavy approach without complication.
Han’s sudden emergence has certainly come as a welcomed surprise to his team, the SK Wyverns, who will need his production if they are to hold their currently tenuous grip on the final KBO playoff spot. The Wyverns, 49-45-1, lead the sixth-place LG Twins by a mere half game.
By Alex Park / Intern reporter (firstname.lastname@example.org)