Lessons the KBO should learn from Nyjer Morgan’s release
by Han Lee
Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) released former major league outfielder Nyjer Morgan, becoming the second foreign player (Zach Lutz, Doosan Bears) to be released in the KBO this season.
Morgan, who signed a 1-year $700,000 deal, appeared in just 10 games during his first season in South Korea, batting .273 with 5 RBIs and one steal.
The 34 year old came in with 598 games of MLB experience, a .282 hitter with 120 steals lifetime in the big leagues. He spent the 2013 season with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan, batting .294 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs in 108 games. In 2014, Morgan returned to the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians, but was limited to just 15 games due to injury.
Upon the announcement of his signing during the off-season, Hanwha fans were optimistic that the 7-year major league veteran would be able to fill the void left by Felix Pie, who failed to re-sign with the team after the 2014 season. However, there were early signs of trouble from the beginning. Morgan reported to Spring Training on January 25, 2015 (spring training starts much earlier in Korea). For many foreign players, it is very common for them to have a “delayed” start in getting in shape for the season, since their bodies are not used to being in shape as quickly.
However, the current Hanwha coaching staff takes an “old school Japanese” approach to the game. Rather than giving Morgan the time to adjust to the much earlier spring training and learn how to adapt accordingly, the front office and coaching staff sent Morgan down to minor league camp after just 8 days, citing reasons for him being out of shape. A few weeks later, on February 20th, Morgan rejoined the first team, only to be sent back down to the minors again just 5 days later. Notable “tension” had started to develop between the player and coaching staff, most notably, manager Kim. Morgan failed to appear in any KBO Major League exhibition games, which began the speculation of his possible release in the near future.
At the start of the regular season, Morgan was called-up to rejoin the first team. In his first KBO action, he went 4 for 5, with two doubles and a stolen base, flashing his notorious Tony Plush “T” hand gesture. On April 7th, Morgan led his team to a victory with a game-winning hit. The fans caught on quickly, and it appeared Morgan was headed to stardom.
Unfortunately, his good fortunes took a quick turn on April 8th. After Morgan was caught stealing second base, he was spotted by the manager flashing his “T” sign. Manager Kim was notably displeased, and told reporters after the game “Morgan should become a comedian. He’s always laughing for no reason. Even after striking out, he comes into the dug out and does the T sign.”
Two games later, on April 10th, Morgan was taken out of the game after going 0 for 2, with two strikeouts. He was subsequently sent down to the minor leagues the next day. It was reported that Morgan saw limited action in the minors, playing in just 6 games (.214 average, 3 hits) due to lower back pain.
Manger Kim denied “problems with Morgan’s attitude or poor teamwork,” whose larger than life personality is well known around the baseball community. Kim cited the “inability to hit low breaking balls, and a weak arm” as reasons for his release. After not playing in a KBO Major League spring training game and only playing in 10 regular season KBO games, the Hanwha Eagles staff decided that they would be a better team without Morgan. It’s hard to fully comprehend that performance was the main reason for Morgan’s release. Morgan put up better than league replacement average numbers in his 10 games. He hit .273/.405/.333 and statistically outperformed players such as, Andrew Brown, who slashed .194/.390/.387 during his first 10 games in Korea. Since that time, Brown has become one of the best hitters in the KBO, with a slash-line of .287/.426/.608, 9 HR, 23 RBI, 21 BB, 28 K through 28 games.
The release of foreign players like Morgan is not good for the KBO or for current and future foreign players heading to Korea. Hanwha paid $70,000 per game that Morgan appeared in, and Morgan missed out on the opportunity to extend his earning potential by being a productive baseball player in the KBO.
With its current front office and coaching staff, foreign players that play for the Hanwha Eagles are likely in most need to be educated about the adjustments that need to be made on and off the field to be successful in the KBO. Because Hanwha insists that behavior was not a factor in Morgan’s release, current foreigners Mitch Talbot (1-2 8.89 ERA) and Shane Youman (1-2 5.09 ERA) should be aware of the environment, and added pressure that exists within the Eagles expectations. Also, Morgan’s replacement should be well informed that immediate and constant success far superior to that of Andrew Brown is to be expected on a daily basis.
There are big cultural differences between baseball in the United States and Korea. Nyjer Morgan was not educated on these differences and failed at having success in the KBO. I would like to believe that educating Morgan on the expectations of the Eagles and educating him on Korean culture would have improved the likelihood of him being a successful player in the KBO.
Although his personality was different than most, I believe he could have made the adjustments necessary to be successful in the KBO. If those adjustments had been made, he would have been a productive player and a fan favorite for many years to come.