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A Thumbnail Guide to the KBO’s 2020 Season

Like most people who cover Major League Baseball professionally, I am no expert when it comes to the Korea Baseball Organization. However, over the past six weeks — ever since that first flicker of hope glimpsed in the form of a Lotte Giants scrimmage streamed on YouTube, just as the nightmare of the COVID-19 pandemic was getting particularly heavy in New York City — I’ve learned a great deal about the league through conversations with MyKBO’s Dan Kurtz, FanGraphs alumni Josh Herzenberg and Sung Min Kim (both now Lotte Giants employees), and Samsung Lions international scout Aaron Tassano. I’ve read similar lines of inquiry from other baseball-starved scribes as well as English-speaking Korean journalists, dug through Baseball-Reference and Statiz, and delved into the work of my colleagues, particularly Ben Clemens’ two-part rundowns of the league’s foreign-born players, and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the league. Along with a similar crash course in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, it’s been a fun project that has helped take my mind off not only the delays and uncertainty regarding the 2020 MLB season but also the grim backdrop of the pandemic in this country.

Spurred by Monday’s news that ESPN will carry English-language broadcasts of one KBO game per day, all the way through the league’s postseason, what follows here is my attempt to digest my KBO crash course into a usable guide for those who are similarly dipping their toes into the league’s waters for the first time. I can’t claim this to be comprehensive, but whether you’re looking to pick a team to root for or simply trying to find a few players to focus upon as you watch live baseball, I hope that it’s helpful.

A few reminders: this is a 10-team league whose team names carry those of the corporations that own them, not the cities they call home; the season is 144 games long; ties are called after 12 innings (15 in the postseason) and don’t count in determining winning percentage; it’s a contact-centric league with lower strikeout and home run rates than MLB, the latter after a conscious effort to de-juice the ball in 2019; and each team is allowed three foreign players. The playoff system is a “step-ladder” where the regular season winner gets a bye all the way to the Korean Series, the fifth- and fourth-place teams square off in a Wild Card round, with the winner facing the third-place team in the best-of-five Semi-Playoffs, the winner of that series playing the second-place team in the best-of-five KBO Playoffs, and that winner facing the top team in the best-of-seven Korean Series. Read the rest of this entry »

Nothing Lost in Translation: Meet Dan Kurtz, the KBO’s Top Ambassador, Part 2

Last week, Dan Kurtz, the proprietor of agreed to an email interview and offered more insights into the league than could fit into a single post. In Part 1, we discussed Kurtz’s background and how he became a go-to for all things KBO. Here we discuss the competitive landscape of the league and what to expect in 2020, all the more relevant for a U.S. audience that will now be able to watch KBO action on ESPN.

This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. For the purposes of clarity and familiarity, I have used the English naming order, placing Korean surnames last instead of first.

Jay Jaffe: What is it that has made the Doosan Bears so dominant in recent years, with five straight trips to the Korea Series and three championships in that span?

Dan Kurtz: Doosan has been the premier team of the late 2010s. I would credit that to not only the high level of play by some of their foreign players, such as Josh Lindblom, Dustin Nippert, and Jose Miguel Fernandez, but also to how few holes the team has had due to their depth at certain positions.

An example: Doosan lost the league’s best catcher to the NC Dinos prior to the 2019 season (Eui-ji Yang). How did the team respond? They plugged Se-hyuk Park in at catcher and proceeded to win another title. Their starting rotation during this time has also helped carry them to many wins, and while their foreign pitchers played a big role during their championships, their Korean counterparts also more than held their own. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 5/4/20

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Good afternoon, folks, and welcome to the May 4th edition of my chat. While the queue fills up, I’m going to take a moment to bang out an Instagraphs entry on some very exciting news: ESPN and the Korea Baseball Organization have struck a deal to carry English-language broadcasts — one a day, six days a week. Yes, for most of us, the hours will be inconvenient, but if you have a TiVO or DVR you can time-shift and watch at your convenience, which is what I’ll be doing when I can. More details shortly.

ESPN will air six KBO games per week. Here’s the schedule for this week!
4 May 2020
Avatar Jay Jaffe: and I’m back

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Sorry for the delay, but that news is too exciting not to share. Anyway, on with the chat…

E: Without looking, where does Adrian Beltre rank in all time hitter WAR?

Avatar Jay Jaffe: (without looking): easily within the top 50.

(looking via B-Ref): 27th all-time.

(looking via FanGraphs): 33rd all-time.

mmddyyyy: Is peak score consecutive years?

Read the rest of this entry »

Nothing Lost in Translation: Meet Dan Kurtz, the KBO’s Top Ambassador, Part 1

In the absence of Major League Baseball, the more adventurous among us have turned to the only foreign leagues able to move forward with their respective seasons, namely the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which opened on April 12, and the Korea Baseball Organization, whose Opening Day will be Tuesday. While both leagues contain a smattering of familiar names from MLB and the high minors, the language barriers for those leagues can be daunting. To appreciate those circuits’ nuances, their respective histories, and the cultural differences that separate them from MLB, it’s helpful to have a guide, or guides.

For the KBO, perhaps the best among them is Dan Kurtz, a 40-year-old stay-at-home father of three who lives in Tacoma, Washington. Born in Seoul, South Korea, but adopted as an infant and raised in the U.S., Kurtz’s interest in the KBO was kindled when he traveled to his birth country for the first time in 1999, at age 19. Three years later, he started, an excellent English-language resource that was initially a message board but that now features schedules, standings, stats, and instructions on how to stream games — and even a fantasy league. As the eyes of the world have turned to the KBO, he’s emerged as an outstanding ambassador, tirelessly answering the questions of those looking to find their way to appreciating the league, this scribe included.

Last week, Kurtz agreed to an email interview and offered more insights into the league — far more than could fit into a single post! What follows here, where we discussed Kurtz’s background and how he became a go-to for all things KBO, and in Part 2, where we get into the real nitty-gritty of what to watch for in the 2020 season, is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. For the purposes of clarity and familiarity, I have used the English naming order, placing Korean surnames last instead of first.

Jay Jaffe: Were you a baseball fan before [traveling to Korea] (MLB or foreign leagues) and if so, who did you root for?

Dan Kurtz: Having grown up in Eastern Pennsylvania, I became a Philadelphia Phillies fan and like many kids in the area, I pretended to be Mike Schmidt and hit a game winning home run. Before moving to Lancaster, I lived near Reading and went to a lot of Reading Phillies games. I can remember going to some games with friends and lining up to get autographs from the likes of Pat Combs and Jason Grimsley. So despite having moved from the area and around the world the past few years, I am still a Phillies fan and am also trying to make my kids fans of the team as well. Currently, they show no affinity towards baseball; they just refer to the Phils and my other favorite sports teams as “Daddy’s team.”

Read the rest of this entry »

The Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 Will Have to Wait a Year for Induction Weekend

At a time when gatherings of even a handful of people are officially frowned upon, the thought of packing 50,000 or more into the tiny hamlet of Cooperstown, New York for a weekend of festivities is downright unthinkable, even nearly three months from now. Thus it was no surprise that on Wednesday, the Baseball Hall of Fame officially announced that its board of directors had voted unanimously to cancel this year’s Induction Weekend events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Less than two weeks ago, Forbes Magazine’s Barry Bloom had reported that a decision would be reached by the first week of May, at which point it was all over but the official word.

Thus 2020 BBWAA honorees Derek Jeter and Larry Walker, Today’s Game honorees Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller, Spink Award winner Nick Cafardo, Frick Award winner Hawk Harrelson, and Buck O’Neil Award winner David Montgomery will all be honored during next year’s Induction Weekend. Via the Hall’s announcement:

“Induction Weekend is a celebration of our National Pastime and its greatest legends, and while we are disappointed to cancel this incredibly special event, the Board of Directors’ overriding concern is the health and well-being of our new inductees, our Hall of Fame members, our wonderful fans and the hundreds of staff it takes to present the weekend’s events in all of its many facets,” said Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “We care deeply about every single person who visits Cooperstown.”

“In heeding the advice of government officials as well as federal, state and local medical and scientific experts, we chose to act with extraordinary caution in making this decision,” Clark continued. “The Board of Directors has decided that the Class of 2020 will be inducted and the 2020 Award Winners will be honored as part of next summer’s Hall of Fame Weekend, taking place July 23-26, 2021.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Nothing Lost in Translation: Meet Your English-Language Go-To for the CPBL

At least until May 5, when the Korea Baseball Organization plans to hold its Opening Day, the Chinese Professional Baseball League isn’t just the only game in town, it’s the only pro sports league in the world that’s up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic. The four-team circuit plays in a time zone that’s 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time — currently to empty ballparks due to safety concerns — and while the league has begun streaming English-language broadcasts on Twitter, its official site and its on-demand streaming service are mainly in Mandarin, creating a hurdle even for fans willing to get their baseball fixes over morning coffee or by watching rebroadcasts later in the day.

Enter CPBL Stats (@GOCPBL on Twitter), the Mike Trout of English-language resources devoted to the league, and a must-see for anybody attempting to, well, figure out Who’s Hu in Taiwanese baseball. In assembling the aforementioned piece last week, I found CPBL Stats’ site to be a godsend. Its Quick Guide to the 2020 Season pulls double duty as a season preview and a guide to the league’s recent history. Its English-language rosters, and stats (including advanced metrics like wRC+ ad FIP), and its guide to streaming are all indispensible features. While I was writing about the league, the site’s proprietor, Rob, was most helpful in filling in some gaps in my understanding. Earlier this week, he agreed to an email interview that further enhanced my appreciation of the league and his site, and I hope will do the same for FanGraphs’ readers.

First things first: Rob is a Taiwan native who speaks Mandarin as well as English. He described himself as “just an everyday 9-5 office worker in the marketing industry based outside of Taiwan,” and asked to further limit his disclosure of certain personal details, including his surname. What follows here is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange. I have used the English naming order, placing Chinese surnames last instead of first. Read the rest of this entry »

Manny Ramirez Is Eying a Return to Taiwan

For whatever his transgressions both on and off the field — and he amassed an unenviable collection of them to go with the highlight reel from his 19-year major league career — nobody could ever say that Manny Ramirez doesn’t love baseball and wouldn’t go to the end of the earth, or at least halfway around the globe, to play it. After a brief, unsuccessful comeback bid in the A’s organization in 2012, the then-41-year-old slugger surprised the baseball world by heading over to Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, where he played 49 games with the EDA Rhinos. Seven years later and more than two years removed from his last stint at any level, he’s itching to go back to the only professional league currently playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The people of Taiwan treated me like ‘baseball-royalty’, and I was truly overwhelmed by the island’s love for the game,” the soon-to-be-48-year-old Ramirez told Mark Buckton of The Taiwan Times. “My goal for 2020 is to find a roster spot in the CPBL,” he said, adding:

I have been itching to get back in the batter’s box and be able to compete again. I also miss being around teammates and team dinners post-game.

I know if I was given the opportunity to come in an organization as a player-coach, it would do great things for the organization and the league.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Sting of Contraction Is No Minor Matter

Last week, conflicting reports regarding the state of Major League Baseball’s ongoing effort to contract and realign the minor leagues surfaced. While Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper and the Associated Press both reported that MLB is nearing an agreement with Minor League Baseball that would result in the loss of 42 affiliated teams, MiLB countered with a statement disputing the accuracy of the reports. Regardless of exactly where things stand in the negotiations, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic endangering the entirety of the 2020 minor league season, some thinning of the herd appears likely.

While I’ve lived in New York City for 25 years and attended hundreds of Yankees games and dozens of Mets games in both recreational and professional capacities, I grew up on minor league baseball, primarily in Salt Lake City, where I lived from 1973-88 (and where my parents still reside), and Walla Walla, Washington, where my paternal grandparents lived and where I visited for several summers in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Thus I’m all too familiar with the pain that comes from a city losing its minor league affiliate — and two of the 42 teams reportedly on the chopping block hit close to home, both my current one and the one of my youth.

When I began attending games circa 1977-78, the Salt Lake Gulls were the Triple-A affiliate of the California Angels, and part of the storied, high-scoring Pacific Coast League. They featured future big leaguers like Willie Aikens, Rance Mulliniks, and Dickie Thon, all of whom Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi made sure to trade away for aging veterans (not without some success), a pattern that continued through the remainder of the two teams’ relationship. While I had no affinity for the big club, I enjoyed following the careers of the aforementioned players and their successors, like Tom Brunansky and Brian Harper, as they fanned out across the majors.

My father would take my brother and me to a few Gulls games each year — often against the Albuquerque Dukes, the Dodgers’ Triple-A team and therefore of considerable interest in our household — and highlights from those games still stick out, particularly from 1979, the year they won the PCL championship. In one game we attended, Ike Hampton, a catcher-turned-designated hitter who clubbed 30 home runs for the Gulls that year, bookended a 17-inning epic with a pair of homers, though I was safely tucked in bed by the time the latter landed. In another game, Floyd Rayford, a third baseman whom Earl Weaver later used as a backup catcher, mashed a dramatic eighth-inning three-run homer that turned a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 lead, creating pandemonium; we could have turned cartwheels all the way home. Once my fascination with baseball statistics had begun, I’d pore over the Gulls’ daily box scores and update a hand-kept stat sheet, annexing my mother’s pocket calculator to figure out batting averages and ERAs. A few years later, I’d even apply rudimentary Bill James formulas to calculate runs created, though this involved some guesstimation when it came to counting walks via a standard four-numbered box score (AB R H BI). Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 4/27/20

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Hello folks, and welcome to my first Monday chat in a few weeks. While I wait for the queue to fill up, a couple of things…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: First, I have a tribute to the legendary Steve Dalkowski, who passed away on April 19. The accounts of his career are voluminous, for he threw faster and harder than perhaps any other pitcher who has come along — but he lacked control, both on and off the field…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Second, I have a CPBL-related piece in the pipeline for later this week


Avatar Jay Jaffe: (I have been jonesing for several varieties of Asian food but those restaurants in my area were the first to shutter)

Avatar Jay Jaffe: OK, now, on with the show

Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering Steve Dalkowski, Perhaps the Fastest Pitcher Ever

You know the legend of Steve Dalkowski even if you don’t know his name. He’s the fireballer who can summon nearly unthinkable velocity, but has no idea where his pitch will go. His pitches strike terror into the heart of any batter who dares face him, but he’s a victim of that lack of control, both on and off the field, and it prevents him from taking full advantage of his considerable talent. That, in a nutshell, was Dalkowski, who spent nine years in the minor leagues (1957-65) putting up astronomical strikeout and walk totals, coming tantalizingly close to pitching in the majors only to get injured, then fading away due to alcoholism and spiraling downward even further. Dalkowski, who later sobered up but spent the past 26 years in an assisted living facility, died of the novel coronavirus in New Britain, Connecticut on April 19 at the age of 80.

Ron Shelton, who while playing in the Orioles’ system a few years after Dalkowski heard the tales of bus drivers and groundskeepers, used the pitcher as inspiration for the character Nuke LaLoosh in his 1988 movie, Bull Durham. In 2009, Shelton called him “the hardest thrower who ever lived.” Earl Weaver, who saw the likes of Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Sam McDowell, concurred, saying, “Dalko threw harder than all of ‘em.”

“It’s the gift from the gods — the arm, the power — that this little guy could throw it through a wall, literally, or back Ted Williams out of there,” wrote Shelton. “That is what haunts us. He had it all and didn’t know it. That’s why Steve Dalkowski stays in our minds. In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting.”

In 1970, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Jordan (himself a control-challenged former minor league pitcher) told the story of Williams stepping into the cage when Dalkowski was throwing batting practice:

After a few minutes Williams picked up a bat and stepped into the cage. Reporters and players moved quickly closer to see this classic confrontation. Williams took three level, disciplined practice swings, cocked his bat, and motioned with his head for Dalkowski to deliver the ball. Dalkowski went into his spare pump, his right leg rising a few inches off the ground, his left arm pulling back and then flicking out from the side of his body like an attacking cobra. The ball did not rip through the air like most fastballs, but seemed to appear suddenly and silently in the catcher’s glove. Read the rest of this entry »