A First-Half Recap of the 2022 KBO Season, Part One

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2022 KBO season halfway through, it seemed like a good opportunity to summarize the ins-and-outs of baseball over in Korea so far. Since I’m doing this in order of the standings, part one will talk about the SSG Landers, Kiwoom Heroes, LG Twins, KIA Tigers, and KT Wiz. Part two, which will be published tomorrow, will focus on the Samsung Lions, Doosan Bears, Lotte Giants, NC Dinos, and Hanwha Eagles, so don’t fret if your favorite team doesn’t appear here. Without further ado, here’s the latest on the Korea Baseball Organization.

Standings

KBO Standings as of June 29
Team W-T-L Winning% Games Behind
SSG Landers 47-3-25 .653 0.0
Kiwoom Heroes 46-1-28 .622 2.0
LG Twins 43-1-29 .597 4.0
KIA Tigers 38-1-34 .528 9.0
KT Wiz 35-2-37 .486 12.0
Samsung Lions 35-0-39 .473 13.0
Doosan Bears 32-2-37 .464 13.5
Lotte Giants 31-3-38 .449 14.5
NC Dinos 27-2-43 .386 19.0
Hanwha Eagles 24-1-48 .333 23.0

Team Notes

SSG Landers

A strong rotation is a key component of any dominant team, and the Landers have exactly that — the best in the KBO, in fact. It’s led by Wilmer Font, who threw nine perfect innings in his first start of the season but failed to receive a single run of support. He’s maintained that brilliance, posting a 1.94 ERA and 2.76 FIP so far. But guess who leads the league with a 1.43 ERA? That’s Kwang Hyun Kim, who I suspect took a few courses on modern pitching theory, because his sub-30% fastball rate and 40% slider rate are an analyst’s dream come true. Oh, and he’s throwing two ticks harder than he did in the States. Talk about a homecoming.

The Landers’ lineup, while not as untouchable, is no slouch, either. Shin-Soo Choo remains a valuable leadoff hitter with his penchant for walks at the ripe old age of 40. Seong-han Park is the best hitting shortstop in the league, team captain and rightfielder Yoo-seom Han is on pace for a career-best 5 WAR, and the ever-consistent third baseman Jeong Choi — think of him as a Miguel Cabrera-type who never experienced a drastic decline — is slashing .302/.410/.493. It’s not just the veterans, as Ji-hoon Choi, their 25-year-old centerfielder, is in the midst of a breakout campaign with a 130 wRC+.

Entering this season, however, the offense consisted of two major holes. Thankfully, the first has been addressed: In May, the Landers made a trade for Tigers catcher Min-sik Kim, which made sense given the negative WAR accrued by SSG catchers up to that point. Kim is wielding a league-average bat with his new team so far, and while his production will likely a dwindle a tad, he’s nonetheless a massive upgrade. Meanwhile, the second hole at second base remains an issue, and the Landers’ internal options are nonexistent. They may not go for another trade given that the current squad is enough to win the pennant, but it is a major weakness. Overall, these Landers are the team to beat this KBO season.

Kiwoom Heroes

If you told me back in April that the Heroes would be in second place by late June, I’d have guessed that Yasiel Puig had played a crucial role. Well, surprise, surprise — the wild horse has been slashing a modest .232/.325/.397, though with this year’s pitcher-friendly environment, it’s actually better than average. Puig is on pace for, at best, around 2 WAR. So who or what is responsible for this heroic ascendance?

It’s a bit of everything, I suppose. The Heroes are the KBO’s best all-around team this season. Having a preternatural base-stealer in Hye-seong Kim, who’s on pace for 55 successful heists and just eight failures, helps in that regard. But when the Heroes as a whole are second in baserunning wins above average, that’s also telling. They’re also fourth in defensive wins above average, and a run saved is as good as a run earned. Where the Heroes have seen a most drastic improvement, however, is in the bullpen. Once one of the league’s worst, it’s now second in terms of WAR thanks to career-best seasons from Jae-woong Kim and Sung-hyun Moon. As per usual, the starting rotation and the lineup are the driving force, but it’s those seemingly minor additions that have made all the difference.

Then again, the answer is also as simple as an MVP-caliber season from Jung-hoo Lee, who by the day is cementing himself as the KBO’s best hitter. He’s improved his wRC+ in each season of his professional career, and in 2022, it’s soared all the way up to a 178 mark. The secret? For starters, Lee is posting an unbelievable walk-to-strikeout ratio of 2.50. Nothing can quite get him to swing and miss, even a pitch this low:

But that hasn’t come at the cost of contact quality. In fact, he’s carrying the highest ISO of his career (.221) and is on pace for 27 home runs. A long-held question about Lee was whether his raw power would ever emerge as in-game power, but as he enters his athletic prime, that question mark is turning into an exclamation point.

LG Twins

The Twins are such a good team that it’s not so surprising to see them in third place. Not much has changed since the beginning of the season — pretty much everyone is performing as expected — but the team’s stability is all the more impressive considering that Rio Ruiz was an absolute flop; the third baseman coughed up a 42 wRC+ (.155/.234/.262) in 94 miserable plate appearances before being sent down and ultimately released.

In my offseason recap, I lauded the signing of centerfielder Hae-min Park because he granted the Twins flexibility, and Ruiz’s unceremonious exit provided an example of why. Without missing a beat, they were able to move Bo-gyeong Moon from first to third, with Eun-seong Chae taking over in his stead. In the outfield, Chang-ki Hong found a new home in right. All this maneuvering wouldn’t have been possible without Park, and with Robel García soon to join the Twins, they won’t be missing out on depth for too long.

If the Twins have a flaw, it’s that their rotation is top-heavy. There’s Casey Kelly, the team’s longtime ace who is in his fourth KBO season. Did you know that he’s pitched at least five innings in 68 consecutive starts (and counting)? I had my reservations about Adam Plutko due to his poor command, but he’s apparently found it in Korea; the righty’s K-BB rate is eighth-highest among qualified starters, as the movement on both his fastball and curve are enough to induce ample swings-and-misses. Beyond those two… well, there’s work to be done.

Hey, at least Twins can take solace in having the best bullpen in the league. Flamethrowing closer Woo-suk Go usually gets the spotlight, but I wanted to highlight Woo-young Jung, who throws an MLB-quality sinker (velocity- and movement-wise) from a deceptively low arm slot. If he can add a sweeping slider to go along with that great fastball, Jung has the ceiling of a major league setup man.

KIA Tigers

Whoa, what are the Tigers doing here? They did strike gold with marquee free-agent signing Sung-bum Na, whose 158 wRC+ so far has been well worth a hefty price tag. But it turns out that Socrates Brito loves raking in Korea. While fans clamored for the team to cut bait with the outfielder when he struggled in April, he experienced an awakening in May and hasn’t looked back. There’s a reason why you give foreign hitters an adjustment period, no matter how awful they might appear; even after a horrid first month, Brito is hitting .339/.385/.563 on the season with no signs of slowing down. At a glance, these two titans are propelling the Tigers forward.

It’s a little more complicated than that, though. The Tigers are also benefiting from a swarm of position players hitting beyond their normal levels of aptitude. Here are a couple of examples:

The Tigers Are Turning Up
Player Position 2021 wRC+ 2022 wRC+
Chang-jin Lee LF 66 132
Dae-in Hwang 1B 84 105
Chan-ho Park SS 80 100
Ji-hyuk Ryu 3B 104 121
Hyoung-woo Choi DH 98 113
SOURCE: Statiz

For Hyoung-woo Choi, this season represents a bounce-back, as the veteran’s career wRC+ is close to 150. And there are likely a few legitimate breakouts within the above cohort, especially among the younger players. But when a team’s offensive output is built on several regulars having career-best seasons, it doesn’t bode well for even the immediate future. Coupled with the fact that Sean Nolin is injured, that Ronnie Williams is a bust (and was recently released), and that Hyeon-Jong Yang has been good but not great, we should tamper our expectations for this Tigers squad. Still, it’s competent enough to vie for a Wild Card spot, which is fantastic news for a team that’s technically supposed to be rebuilding. These Tigers remind me of last year’s San Francisco Giants, albeit with less flair for the dramatic.

KT Wiz

I’m ready to admit that I was completely wrong about ByungHo Park. All signs indicated that this was an aging hitter on the decline, but the Wiz showed faith in the 36-year-old, and the commitment has paid off, as the first baseman leads the league with 24 homers and is on pace for 40-plus. His whiffs are down, and he looks the healthiest he has in years. It’s incredible and exciting to watch a fan-favorite hitter fight off Father Time for a late-career hurrah. Whether Park can power through the remainder of his three-year contract remains to seen, but for now, I’m glad to have been off-base.

Unfortunately, his teammates haven’t been as prolific. In Baek-ho Kang’s case, injures are to blame; a foot injury sustained right before Opening Day kept him off the field until recently. He’s only just roaring back to life, and the team has felt his absence. Others, such as Jung-dae Bae (CF) and Jae-Gyun Hwang (3B), are simply faring worse relative to last year. It hasn’t been all rain clouds and misery, however. Sung-woo Jang is enjoying, by far, the best season of his career as a 32-year-old catcher. His 132 wRC+ would lead the position if not for Jun-tae Kim… who’s the Wiz’s backup catcher and shares an identical wRC+! Acquired from the Lotte Giants in an offseason trade, Kim’s prodigious top-end exit velocities long belied his actual results. Who knows, maybe a change of scenery helped the two to converge.

Besides, the Wiz will always have its pitching depth. You may know the whole cast and crew already, but since it’s good to refresh ourselves: Submariner and staff ace Young-pyo Ko is just impossible to hit; all season, he’s been inducing groundballs (at a 77.9% rate) and allowing fewer free passes than a ticket inspector. Je-seong Bae has been his solid mid-3 FIP self for a fourth consecutive year. And though William Cuevas got the boot after failing to return from an early-season elbow injury, Odrisamer Despaigne has continued to consume innings; with a 3.19 FIP, he’s better than what his lackluster 4.59 ERA suggests. The Wiz are like the anti-Tigers, with a lineup that’s underperforming and pitching that’s doing the heavy lifting. In terms of the standings, I recommend mentally flip-flopping the Tigers and the Wiz.





Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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trpetersenmember
3 months ago

Love this! More international baseball content please 🙂