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

Ashley Green-Worcester Telegram

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 (in case you missed it) covered the SSG Landers, Kiwoom Heroes, LG Twins, KIA Tigers, and KT Wiz. Part two will focus on the remaining five teams: the Samsung Lions, Doosan Bears, Lotte Giants, NC Dinos, and Hanwha Eagles. 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

Samsung Lions

What do you do when you lose Hae-min Park, your All-Star centerfielder, to free agency? Casually replace him with a 20-year-old prospect, that’s what. A second-round pick in 2021, Hyeon Joon Kim is filling in some big shoes with a .307/.401/.394 slashline so far. That doesn’t mean he’s an instant star, though. Contact-orientated hitters do fare better in Korea than they do in the States, but Kim’s utter lack of slug forewarns BABIP complications, and he’s not a particularly amazing fielder. Still, it’s great that the Lions have found a suitable replacement so quickly.

As for the Lions’ foreign players, Jose Pirela’s 167 wRC+ leads the team, dispelling the shroud of doubt created by his meager second half in 2021. The power hasn’t gone anywhere, and he’s even trimmed his already excellent strikeout rate. Since arriving in Korea in 2020, David Buchanan has gone from “solid No. 2/3 starter” to “bonafide ace.” And his latest partner, Albert Suárez, is looking like a successful acquisition (2.31 ERA/2.96 FIP). Most KBO teams have qualms with at least one of their foreign recruits; the Lions certainly do not.

But there’s a reason why they are in sixth place. Despite a career-best season in 2021, veteran lefty Jung-hyun Baek has crashed and burned this year and is practically unusable. Chae-heung Choi, a rotation stalwart, has left to complete his mandatory military service. On the position player side, rightfielder Ja-wook Koo looks nothing like his normal, hard-hitting self, and his trips to the injured list are likely to blame. What’s worse, the entire infield save for first baseman Ji-hwan Oh is on track for less than 1 WAR.

Looking back, it’s surprising that the Lions climbed all the way to second place last season. This feels more like a knock-back from fourth place to sixth. New contributors are providing the Lions a step forward, but the departures of old ones are dragging them two steps back. They aren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just that the losses have piled up.

Doosan Bears

“I used to rule the world,” goes the opening lyric of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” and indeed, the Bears of today resemble a fallen kingdom. Once an evil empire that always made the postseason and usually excelled, the team has lost its former strength to either free agency or age-related decline. Of the position player core, four remain today; two of them (Jae-hwan Kim, Kyoung-min Hur) are still stars, but the remaining two (Soo-bin Jung, Sei-hyok Park) are fading away. Jung in particular has been brutal, hitting .232/.297/.286 halfway through the season.

That’s mostly in line with expectations, however. What’s been absolutely devastating is the total absence of Aríel Miranda, who broke the KBO’s single-season strikeout record last year en route to an MVP award. But the lefty was left off the postseason roster after reporting pain in his elbow, which persisted throughout the offseason and well into the beginning of this season. After failing again and again to show his former self, the Bears decided to remove him from the roster once and for all; though it hasn’t been made official yet, he’s good as released.

If not for the rest of the rotation, the Bears probably would have been lower on this recap. Shrugging off concerns about his past workload (or lack thereof), Robert Stock has been the team’s premier innings-eater so far, averaging a hair over six innings per start. After spending a significant amount time as a swingman, Young-ha Lee is back in the rotation, where he’s been excellent. Sidearmer Won-jun Choi continues to be the Bears’ best Korean starter. The pitching depth is shallow, sure, but keep in mind that things could have been much worse.

What the Bears will always have on their side is a knack for player development. Gweon-su An (133 wRC+ in 205 PA) is coming into his own, and Suk-hwan Yang, the thumping first baseman they plucked from the Twins, is raking for the second season in a row. He may not consider his production a form of protest, but the front office should really take note; for some reason, the Bears are insisting on sharing Yang’s playing time with Jin-sung Kang, whose breakout 2020 is looking more and more like an anomaly. I could see the Bears sneaking into the postseason once again, but even if they don’t, they’re in better shape than most to deal with the fallout.

Lotte Giants

First, a big shoutout to Dae-Ho Lee. Lotte Giants and Seattle Mariners legend, 40 years old, in his final KBO season, doing great things:

But almost everyone else? What a shame. Can you believe that even with Dae-Ho hitting above .350 and Dong-hui Han taking the next step in his career offensively, this is the worst hitting team in the KBO? And that just a year ago, the Giants had the third-highest team wRC+?

It becomes believable once you consider that four positions — center, right, shortstop, and first base — are below or hovering at replacement-level. If I may go through each position in order: In the offseason, the Giants opted not to re-sign the defensively brilliant Dixon Machado because they wanted a loud bat, settling on DJ Peters instead. He’s launched a few beautiful shots so far, but the centerfielder’s infrequent rate of contact means he isn’t providing much else. The Giants lost franchise cornerstone and rightfielder Ah-seop Son to free agency, leaving a massive crater in the outfield. Hak-Ju Lee, whom the Giants acquired via trade as Machado’s replacement, is not only a black hole on offense but also injured as of this writing. Hoon Jung is off to a no-good, ugly start (70 wRC+ in 142 PA), though injuires might have affected the first baseman as well.

Basically, the team has been surviving on its competent pitching, but that alone is hardly enough for a playoff berth. Unless the bats wake up in the second half, this year would represent another lost season for the Giants, who set off in 2020 with the goal of a semi-rebuild. They’ve mostly succeeded in unloading payroll, but not so much in getting better. Granted, they do seem to draft well, and if the process is sound, the results should follow. Prospects take time, after all. But even after accounting for injuries, the actual Giants simply aren’t where they’re supposed to be in their planned timeline — and that’s a real issue.

NC Dinos

If someone were to cover up the bottom half of the Dinos’ depth chart for hitters, they’d be a stellar team. I mean, the outfield looks great; from left to right, there’s Nicholas Martini (142 wRC+), Kun-woo Park (143 wRC+), and Ah-seop Son (132 wRC+). All three were signed during the offseason, and all three have been major contributors. So no, the Dinos aren’t near the bottom because their acquisitions didn’t work out.

Then somebody would reveal the other half of the depth chart, and oh… okay, this is why the Dinos are in ninth place. Fundamental problems include the fact that they have no first baseman, and that the DH position is a revolving door of various players whisked away from their original positions; you don’t need me to explain why that’s harmful. But the Dinos might also be proof that karma does exist in baseball. Last season, four of their players received suspensions for violating COVID protocols, and it’s only recently that they returned to the lineup. Maybe the Baseball Gods thought they deserved more of a comeuppance. Maybe they’re still reeling from an extended absence. Whatever the reason, those four players have cratered this season:

The Dinos’ Not-so-Fabulous Four
Player Suspension (Games) 2021 wRC+ 2022 wRC+
Sok Min Park 122 126 33
Myung-ki Lee 97 127 64
Min-woo Park 97 97 73
Hui-dong Kwon 97 139 96
SOURCE: Statiz

An unidentifiable malaise has afflicted a good chunk of the rest of the roster, too. With a 122 wRC+, Euiji Yang is still good, but he’s no longer the superstar catcher who once slugged over .700 in a single month. Righty pitcher Wes Parsons is on the injured list, and Min-hyeok Shin has been up and down, struggling to find his footing within the rotation. Chang-mo Koo is back and healthy after a forearm injury that shut him down for over a year, but the damage has already been done. The Dinos aren’t a ninth-place team on paper, but they’ve fallen into such a deep hole that it’ll be nearly impossible to dig themselves out. It might be a good idea to start testing out potential replacements for several everyday players coming off the books.

Hanwha Eagles

The good news: Some parts of the rebuild are going well. For example, the Eagles now have two legitimate stars that make up their position player core. The first is second baseman Eun-won Jung, who has an excellent eye at the plate and is using it to show that his breakout 2021 season (124 wRC+) wasn’t a fluke. The second is third baseman Si-hwan Roh, whose minimal stride and explosive swing reminds me of Giancarlo Stanton. What’s odd about this season is that although Roh is having great results, they’ve been the product of BABIP rather than slugging percentage. He’s also striking out less, though, so maybe we’re seeing him tap into his undeveloped hit tool.

The bad news: Other parts of the rebuild are going… not so well. The pitching is abysmal. The Eagles started off 2022 with their proven duo of Ryan Carpenter and Nick Kingham, but both starters suffered injuries early on in the season and, upon experiencing setbacks, were released by the team. It’s not uncommon to see foreign pitchers exit this way, but the real issue is that the Eagles’ homegrown pitchers aren’t picking up the slack. Dong Ju Moon, their top pitching prospect, clearly isn’t ready for the big stage; the stuff is there — he tops out at 97 mph — but the command is not. He isn’t alone, as nearly every Eagles pitcher save for Jong-soo Kim is a work in progress.

This is the only KBO team with a cumulative pitching WAR in the red, and it shows. They’ve got a few hitters going, but if the Eagles want to become contenders soon, they better rescue their pitching prospects, most of whom are languishing in a developmental dead zone.





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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Jimmember
1 month ago

Justin, do you both speak and read Korean?