One of the most talked about subjects during Mariners spring training so far has been Dae-ho Lee. I imagine that, as the end of spring training draws closer, this discussion will only become more animated. Who is this big man with a big bat who dances to Gangnam Style in the club house? What kind of value might he provide to an MLB club? Will he succeed in the majors? SO MANY QUESTIONS.
First off, we know that he can do this:
Last season, while playing with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, Lee slugged 0.524 and belted 31 dingers. Unfortunately, it's pretty much impossible to accurately predict how a player is going to perform when they switch leagues. However, in this case, we might actually have a player comp that could give us an inkling of how Lee might hit in MLB.
Player A: For the last four seasons, during his age 30-33 seasons, Player A played in the Pacific League of NPB. He is a right-handed hitter who weighs ~280 lbs and is 6'4" tall. He played mostly 1B and DH.
Player B: For his last four seasons, during his age 30-33 seasons, Player B played in the Pacific League of NPB. He is a right-handed hitter who weighs ~260 lbs and is 6'3" tall. He played mostly OF, 1B, and DH.
Player A is Dae-ho Lee and Player B is... Wily Mo Peña! No player comparisons are perfect, but Lee and Peña share very similar body types and played similar positions in the same league at the same time at the same age. So, how do their numbers compare?
|Offensive performance in NPB|
|Wily Mo Peña||2012-2015||30-33||1742||71||24.5||23.9%||10.3%||0.264||0.355||0.459||0.814||0.195|
Over the previous four seasons in NPB, Lee has essentially hit just like Wily Mo Peña but with a few more singles and significantly fewer strike outs. However, their raw power numbers are virtually identical. (It should be noted that Peña played through injury in 2013, which caused his numbers to dip a bit. If one were to remove his injury-riddled '13, his OPS would be much closer to Lee's.) For some perspective about how much better Lee has been been than Peña over the last four seasons, Lee has basically hit like Yasiel Puig and Peña has basically hit like Justin Upton.
|Offensive performance in MLB|
Lee has been the better hitter, but how excited should we get about a guy who is only a bit better than Peña? What do these numbers mean? First, let's recall that Peña had a career wRC+ of 91 in ~1800 MLB PA (most of those appearances coming when he was 22-26 years old). He had a ton of power and was a lot of fun to watch, but he just couldn't hit enough to stick in the majors. Then, when he went to Japan in 2012, his K-rate dropped by 25%, his walk rate increased by 75%, and he added about 70 points to his OPS. This isn't to suggest that NPB is incredibly inferior to MLB (a lot of fun and talented individuals play in Japan), but a discrepancy does exist.
As such, Lee's numbers would almost certainly drop off in MLB, but it's hard to predict by just how much. This is a very hand-wavey calculation, but if Lee demonstrated the exact same offensive exchange rate between MLB and NPB that Wily Mo exhibited, we might expect Lee to have an OPS somewhere around 0.780, which would've been about league-average for a first baseman in 2015. At first blush, I feel like this projection is fairly optimistic; I imagine just about every M's fan would be pretty pleased if Lee performed that well over the course of 2016. Of course, there are many additional factors that one could consider to come up with a more informed prediction, including the hitting environment at Safeco, the fact that offense in MLB has decreased appreciably since Peña's major league career, the fact that Lee will be in his mid 30s as opposed to his mid 20s, and the fact that Lee would likely be platooned heavily in Seattle.
Lee's ability to translate his NPB success and perform well in MLB will rely largely on his ability to adapt/change to his new surroundings. He definitely has a good eye and the power to mash baseballs into the stratosphere, but how well will he adjust to the longer schedule and the obscene amount of travel time? (I don't imagine being 6'4" and sitting in an airplane for six hours is very comfortable/relaxing.) Will he be able to hit offspeed pitches? Will his defense at first be good enough for skipper Scott Servais? These are not insignificant hurdles that he has to overcome.
I don't mean to sound overly pessimistic. Watching Lee play in spring training so far has been a ton o' fun. But the chance that he'll be an offensive force in MLB doesn't seem particularly high. Of course, skeptics have been wrong about foreign imports before. Lots of folks were of the opinion that a 27-year-old Ichiro Suzuki would be far too frail to endure a 162-game season and be able to hit Major League pitching. (I am in no way implying that Lee will have anywhere near the same impact that Ichiro did, but you never know how a player will adjust.) It should also be noted that Lee doesn't have to hit like Puig to make Seattle's 25-man roster and help the Mariners win. He just has to hit better than Jesus Montero, Gaby Sanchez, and Stefen Romero. At this point, that doesn't seem like it'll be beyond his abilities. Make it so, Dae-ho.