2020 hasn’t quite gone as planned for anyone or anything, including baseball, but US audiences got to taste an amuse-bouche with the start of the season for the KBO (Korea Baseball Organization). Naturally, 2020’s gonna 2020 — the NC Dinos and the Samsung Lions dealt with a rain delay early, while the Kia Tigers and Kiwoom Heroes had to wait through a fire delay. But in the end, we had five real, live baseball games go off successfully.
I’ve spent the last four days cloistered within my quarantine, running ZiPS projections for KBO players and their teams. While ZiPS has always been able to project the MLB performance of players who come over from South Korea, I’ve rarely used the feature that allows me to run KBO-specific projections. But with KBO one of the only games in town (let’s not forget the CPBL!), this was a good time to whip out something new.
Many of the typical caveats that apply to projections for MLB players apply to KBO projections. There are also a few additional issues, like the lack of some advanced data and the dude running the projections having less familiarity with team construction. Without advanced data, ZiPS defaults to a simpler model, with results it has less confidence in. I’m still not happy with anything defense-related on an individual level — the team level is easier — so no wins above replacement will be present here.
And having less familiarity with team construction means it’s harder for me to construct depth charts to run simulations, an important aspect of projecting team results. The wonderful MyKBO, run by Dan Kurtz, is an absolutely indispensable site. (My colleague Jay Jaffe has a two-part, in-depth interview with Kurtz you should be sure to read.)
The league’s own site also provides a lot of information, as do the Google gremlins. But even with these sources, it’s not as easy for me to understand the contours of, say, a third base position battle on the Kia Tigers the same way I would on the Detroit Tigers.
Complicating the projections and the depth charts even further is the fact that there’s no system of MLBAM-style players identifiers, something that would be highly useful for a reader who only knows languages that use Latin script. There are multiple systems of Romanization of Korean and the Romanization of many players’ names varies site to site. It’s easy to track the personal naming preferences of players who come to the US given the relatively small player pool; it’s much harder to do so for an entire league.
With those caveats in mind, let’s get to some numbers! As I did last week, I’ve used forename/surname order as is typical in English media. All numbers given are projections unless otherwise specified.
The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth place designations are even more important in the KBO than in MLB because the league uses a gauntlet-style playoff system that penalizes lower seeds more significantly than home-field advantage or the single Wild Card play-in game does. The first-place team only has to win the final series to be the champion, while the fifth-place team has to eliminate all four teams above it.
The Doosan Bears were the top seed in last year’s playoffs and swept the Kiwoom Heroes in a single 4-0 series to win the championship. ZiPS is projecting a slight dropoff in team quality this year as the team has had to replace Josh Lindblom, who has the best ERA projection of any pitcher with 100 innings, after he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers. They’re strengthened by new arrival Chris Flexen, a former Mets prospect who struggled in his limited time in the majors. ZiPS sees Flexen (3.68 ERA) as the best new pitching import in 2020. Jose Miguel Fernandez was a big addition for the Bears in 2019 and he returns, though ZiPS sees a bit of regression to a .312/.380/.443 line.
ZiPS sees the Kiwoom Heroes as the team with the largest dropoff in offense in 2020, from a league-leading 780 runs to 733. While that still projects to lead the league, the pack’s gotten much closer, with the NC Dinos (728), Bears (726), and Wyverns (708) close behind. ByungHo Park (.295/.414/.561) and Ha-seong Kim (.290/.369/.454) return, but Jerry Sands and his .304/.394/.551 projection have departed for Japan and the NPB.
As for the most significant improvements, ZiPS loves the Lotte Giant’s Dixon Machado pickup; Machado played most recently with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs and ZiPS sees a .261/.345/.415 line for him in his first year in Korea. ZiPS also projects a bit of a bounce-back season from Ah-seop Son, expecting him to get his batting average up enough for a .302/.380/.432 line, 52 points of OPS better than his .295/.360/.400 from 2019. The homers (26 in 2018, just 10 in 2019) aren’t likely coming back given the decline in both league offense and Son in his age-32 season.
The SK Wyverns have the biggest projected pitching dropoff thanks to the loss of Angel Sanchez (two homers allowed in 165 innings) and Kwang Hyun Kim to the Yomiuri Giants and St. Louis Cardinals respectively. ZiPS does expect new addition Nick Kingham to at least eat innings effectively (4.14 ERA in 162 projected frames).
ZiPS projects ByungHo Park to again lead the league in home runs, suffering less than most because of the new baseballs. At 33, Park’s place here in the projections may be short-term, but he’s still the favorite for now. Joining previous challengers Jeong Choi and Jamie Romak is Roberto Ramos, with a .267/.347/.475, 22-homers projection in his first season with the KBO. Ramos is fresh from the Colorado Rockies, or at least their Triple-A team since the Rockies showed little interest in giving Ramos playing time in a lost season during which they prioritized giving youngster Mark Reynolds at-bats.
Jae-hwan Kim has a bigger dropoff than most given the new baseballs (1.062 OPS to .797 OPS), though ZiPS isn’t convinced that’s a permanent condition, projecting Kim to come back to a .300/.384/.476 line with 20 homers.
|Jose Miguel Fernandez||.312|
If you want one player to check out — at least one everyone I talked to raves about — it might be hitting machine-slash-catcher Ui-ji Yang, a .354/.438/.574 hitter in 2019 and a former Gold Glove winner at the position. Given that he’s an over-30 catcher, he’s also a player unlikely to find a gig in MLB, meaning that this is the time and place to prioritize seeing him.
ZiPS has him dropping to a .329/.414/.503 line, enough for the projected edge to go to Dinos second baseman Min-Woo Park, right in his prime and a .327 career hitter. He doesn’t have a lot of power, but Jung-hoo Lee is a .338/.397/.449 in three seasons in the KBO and is just entering his age-21 season!
More than half the pitchers with an ERA under three and 100 innings have left Korea since last season! Southpaw Hyeon-jong Yang, in his 14th season with the Kia Tigers, is projected as the favorite and last year’s ERA champion. ZiPS may be low on Warwick Saupold if Opening Day was any indication; he threw a complete-game two-hitter as Hanwha beat SK 3-0.
No, ZiPS doesn’t think that Dan Straily will stop allowing homers in Korea and while it projects him to do well from a strikeout standpoint, the system still has him with a 4.85 ERA. Chang-mo Koo, a young, soft-tossing lefty, seemed to be able to take great advantage to the new baseballs, allowing only 10 home runs and striking out more than a batter a game, a more impressive feat than in the States! ZiPS projects Mike Wright, most notably a Baltimore Orioles, to be a better Baltimore-based addition than Straily.
Now, go watch some games! If you don’t plan on getting up early for the 5:30 AM ET live games on ESPN2, they’re being going to be re-broadcast in the afternoon as well.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.