Here’s the KBO!
It sure is surreal that it is mid-May and the 2020 Major League Baseball season hasn’t even seen a single pitch. Like many fans, I’m hopeful that conditions improve so that even an abbreviated season is able to be played safely.
Meanwhile, Opening Day has been played ….in South Korea.
May 5th was Opening Day for the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). The KBO is the professional baseball league of South Korea. The league was formed with six teams in 1982, and now consists of ten clubs. ESPN has been televising KBO games – see the schedule here:
Enjoy some baseball with your morning coffee if you’re an early bird. As you’ll see, the games are being played in empty or near empty stadiums for the time being.
Looking to get up to speed? Here are some things to know about the KBO:
Introductory Video: Here’s a really well done video that would be a good introduction to the Korean game, how their countrymen love the sport, and their affinity for bat flips:
Team Names: Samsung, Kia , and LG are all brands many of us are familiar with. They are also KBO team owners, and their team names (Kia Tigers, LG Twins, Samsung Tigers) reflect this. Other teams are owned by South Korean business interests and include them in their team names as well.
Caliber of Play: Per most accounts, Korean Baseball isn’t MLB caliber, and isn’t quite on par with Nippon (Japanese) Professional Baseball either. That being said, the case of Eric Thames is very interesting. Thames made his MLB debut in 2011 and had a .727 OPS over 2011-2012. After spending 2013 in the minor leagues, he signed with the NC Dinos of KBO.
He was a revelation to the Dinos, batting .349 and slugging .721 from 2014-2016, averaging 41 home runs per season. He was KBO Most Valuable Player in 2015, when he slashed .381/.497/.790 with 47 home runs and 40 stolen bases. Thames’ success was clearly a result of lesser competition, right?
Well, in 2017, he returned to the USA, signed by the Milwaukee Brewers, and produced a .877 OPS with 31 home runs. His OPS the past three years has been .848. So it seems that he has come back a better player. Did the KBO experience help Thames? Did he just mature as a player? Does time in Korea help MLB players improve?
We’ll get another opportunity to see this year. The 2019 KBO MVP was pitcher Josh Lindblom, who went 20-3, 2.50 for the Doosan Bears and was signed by the Brewers for the 2020 season. Lindblom’s nondescript MLB career numbers are 5-8, 4.10 in parts of five seasons with five different MLB teams. Darin Ruf is another player who found success in Korea after struggling in the majors. He is returning to the US for the 2020 season, with the San Francisco Giants.
Some KBO alum active in the MLB in 2019 included pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers (now the Blue Jays), reliever Suenghwan Oh of the Rockies, infielder Jung-Ho Kang of the Pirates and pitcher Merrill Kelly of the Diamondbacks.
Former Major Leaguers Currently in KBO: There’s a number of current KBO players with MLB experience – league maximum is three foreign players per team. Casey Kelly was a first round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2008. He was 14-12, 2.55 with the LG Twins in 2019. Dan Straily has a 44-40, 4.56 career record with six MLB teams since 2012 and signed with the Lotte Giants for 2020. Preston Tucker was a semi-regular outfielder for Houston in 2015; he batted .311 for the Kia Tigers in 2019. Aaron Altherr slugged .516 as recently as 2017 for the Phillies and will be playing for the NC Dinos in 2020. Tyler Saldino has a .226 career batting average in 326 MLB games and has taken his talent to the Samsung Lions.
Dixon Machado has a lifetime .576 OPS from 2015-2018 with Detroit and has three home runs in his first nine games for the Lotte Giants. Taylor Motter had a .191 batting average with three teams from 2016-2018 and signed with Kiwoom. Jose Miguel Fernandez had a “cup of coffee” with the LA Angels in 2018, then moved to the KBO and batted .344 in 2019. ByungHo Park was a two-time KBO MVP who struggled to a .684 OPS with Minnesota in 2016. He returned to Korea in 2018 and picked up where he left off, leading the league with a 1.174 OPS.
Odrisamer Despaigne has a 5.11 career ERA with five MLB teams. He was the Opening Day starting pitcher for KT Wiz. Hyun Soo Kim had an impressive body of work with Doosan of the KBO, his best season being a .979 OPS in 2015. He came to the MLB and batted .273 with little power for the Orioles and Phillies in 2016-2017. He returned to Korea in 2018 and responded to his homecoming with a .362/.415/.589 slash line. Adrian Sampson was 6-8, 5.89 with Texas in 2019, and was signed by the Lotte Giants for 2020.
Former MLB player and manager Matt Williams took over the helm as manager of the Kia Tigers this season. .
KBO Season Structure: As mentioned previously there are ten teams. Clubs play each opponent 16 times per season, forming a 144-game schedule. The postseason consists of five teams, with the team with the best record getting a bye right to the Korean Series, the championship series of the KBO.
The KBO postseason has a really interesting “ladder” format. First the numbers four and five seeds play a best of three series – called the Wild Card – with the fourth seed awarded a win before the series even starts! So, the fourth seed just needs to win one game to move forward, the fifth seed must win two.
The winner then plays the third seed in a best of five series, and the winner moves on the play the second seed in another five game series. That winner moves onto a seven-game series against the top seed for the championship.
So, there are clear incentives to have the league’s best record in the regular season, and to avoid the fifth seed.
Ties: There is a twelve inning limit on regular season games, fifteen in the postseason. The regular season ties don’t seem to have much if any effect on the standings aside from not getting a win.
Juiced Ball? – A look at KBO stats would show plenty of offense through the years. In 2019, home run totals went down about 40% as a result of the introduction of a less lively, “de-juiced” ball.
Best Native Players: Ha-Seong Kim is a 24-year old shortstop who is often mentioned as a candidate to play in the MLB. He’s an all-around talent whose performance improved even while many others decreased due to the structural changes in the ball. Baek-Ho Kang is a 20-year old outfielder who has a plate presence that belies his youth, and many say he could become the face of KBO in the future. Eui-Ji Yang is the best catcher in the KBO, winning a “sabermetric triple crown” in 2019 by leading all players with a .354 batting average, .438 on base percentage and .574 slugging percentage. Hyeon-Jong Yang was the 2017 MVP, and was 16-8, 2.29 in 2019.
More KBO Links:
A fun article about being a KBO fan: https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/29179582/how-become-kbo-diehard-learned-my-first-two-weeks
Baseball-reference 2020 KBO page: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/league.cgi?id=17edbc3b
ESPN Watch page with KBO highlights: https://www.espn.com/watch/catalog/95c4f9b9-5477-3846-bc16-5aa2ea1c2760
KBO website: http://eng.koreabaseball.com/Default.aspx
I thought I would not be able to get into professional baseball with no fans in the stands. Then I watched this:
Yes, the stands were empty, yes the umpires and coaches were wearing masks. Doesn’t look like baseball.
Watch the LG Twins players celebrate the walk-of hit. Looks like baseball.
It is baseball. If you get a chance, take a look!