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Let’s Check in on the KBO’s De-Juiced Baseballs

(Photo: Sung Min Kim/FanGraphs)

Back in April, I wrote about how the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) had de-juiced their baseballs, and how the offensive environment in the league appeared to be reflecting that change. If you remember from the piece, in March, the KBO conducted a test on a batch of new baseballs to test their coefficient of restitution (COR). It was supposedly reduced from a range of .4123-.4374 to .4034-.4234, while the ball size was increased by 1 millimeter and 1 gram. However, the test brought out some interesting results, as they found several defective balls with a COR more in line with the 2018 baseballs mixed in with the new, less-lively ball.

It doesn’t mean that this season has looked like 2018, though. In fact, the changes became clear in a month’s worth of games, but now that it’s mid-August, I thought I’d give you an update with a bigger sample size. I also thought it would be interesting to see how the de-juiced balls interact with Korea’s warm summer weather. The 2019 KBO regular season is about two-thirds of the way through, and league-wide temperatures have risen enough to see if hotter temperatures have caused an uptick in power that might counteract the effects of the new ball.

Here is how the overall league offensive numbers look this year, compared to those of last year:

KBO League Offensive Stats
2018 .286 .352 .450 .802 .164 .349 3.03
2019 .268 .340 .388 .728 .119 .335 1.83
SOURCE: Statiz
2018 stats are for March-August 12, 2018; 2019 stats are as of August 12.

Read the rest of this entry »

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team: Tales from a KBO Cheer Squad

Left to right: Lee Da-Yeon, Bae Soo-Hyun, Jeong Young-Seok, and Yun Yoanna (Photo by Sung Min Kim/FanGraphs)

In an interview with Great Big Story, Kerry Maher, a Youngsan University professor and Lotte Giants superfan, described the difference between Major League Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) fan atmospheres like this: “To me, MLB is like an opera and the Lotte Giants in the Sajik [Stadium] is rock ‘n’ roll.” For those who have experienced sitting in the stands of both leagues’ ballparks, it probably seems like an apt comparison.

If you’ve followed my work, you’re likely aware of the KBO’s cheering culture. As I wrote when I interviewed several foreign-born players currently playing in the KBO, the league’s fan experience can strike those who aren’t from Korea as somewhat unusual compared to the quieter crowds of MLB. For starters, each KBO team has their own cheermaster and cheerleaders. Last week, I went over to the Incheon SK Munhak Stadium to talk to the SK Wyverns’ cheermaster and three of their cheerleaders. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding a New Baseball Home in the KBO, Part 2

This is the second half of a two-part interview with four foreign-born players in the Korea Baseball Organization. Part 1 can be found here.

RHP Josh Lindblom of the Doosan Bears (Sung Min Kim/FanGraphs)

Any Korean food that grew on you?

Josh Lindblom: All of it. I love Korean food. The best soups I’ve had in my life are here in Korea. Maybe my favorite Korean cuisine is Chinese-Korean food: Jjajangmyeon [noodles in black bean sauce], jjajangbap [rice in black bean sauce], tangsuyuk [sweet and sour fried pork] – all that stuff. That was one of the things that new guys worry about but I’m really lucky to be here in Seoul. When I go to my apartment basement, I’ve got McDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, On The Border, Cinnabon, etc. There’s also a Taco Bell in a train stop away. If I start missing home, I just go down and get some Mexican food. I’m really lucky to be where I’m at.

Jamie Romak: I’m a huge barbecue guy. Sogogi [the Korean term for beef] for sure. Every now and then, I’ll order jjamppong [spicy mixed-up noodle soup] to the clubhouse. I like the seafood one. The guys make fun of me for how much kimchi [spicy fermented cabbage side dish] I have during our team dinners. I eat plates of kimchi. The food transition has been seamless. When I’m back home in Canada during the offseason, I seek Korean food. I wish I could have more of it there.

Tyler Wilson: I actually really like all the food. I would say that the LA Galbi [Korean BBQ beef short ribs] is my favorite. I like galbitang [short ribs soup] a lot. I like kimchijjigae [hot kimchi soup]. I don’t know if there’s one food I didn’t like and now that I like. Just in general I think I’m more comfortable knowing what to order and how to go into a Korean restaurant and know what to expect. I’ve always enjoyed it all. When we were in the States, Hyun-Soo and I would always go out do dinner. On road trips, we would go to Korean restaurants and he introduced them to me before I got here.

Chad Bell: Just your normal Korean barbecue stuff, I love it. Pork kimchi soup – pretty good. Most of the soups here, I’ve enjoyed them. Most of them are spicy and I like spicy stuff. Sometimes the coaching staff or players will walk by, see me eating something, they get surprised and ask me, ‘You like that?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s good!’ There’s nothing that I really hate. I’m not really big on naengmyeon [Korean cold noodles in chilled broth]. I’ve only tried it once. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing with it, but I gotta get the thought of it being weird out of my head. That’s something I haven’t gotten into yet. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding a New Baseball Home in the KBO, Part 1

RHP Tyler Wilson of the LG Twins (Sung Min Kim/FanGraphs)

Last week, I sat down with four of the foreign-born players in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) to discuss their experiences playing in Korea.

Right-handed pitcher Josh Lindblom of the Doosan Bears is the true veteran among all the foreign-born players in the KBO. He started his KBO career with the Lotte Giants in 2015, where he played until 2016, before taking a detour to the States to play for the Pirates in 2017; he returned to Lotte in the second half of that year. In 2018, he signed with the Bears and has been the ace of their staff. This season, Lindblom is the league’s top pitcher: he’s 13-1 with a 1.89 ERA and a 3.09 FIP in 119.0 IP with 112 strikeouts and 18 walks. His 5.38 WAR leads the KBO.

Infielder and designated hitter Jamie Romak of the SK Wyverns was acquired during the 2017 season as a replacement for Danny Worth. Since coming over to Korea, Romak has been one of the most prolific home run hitters in the league, belting 94 out of the park while boasting a career .562 slugging percentage. He’s currently tied for first in home runs (20) while hitting a healthy .276/.366/.517, good for a 136.6 wRC+ on the season.

Right-handed pitcher Tyler Wilson is a former Baltimore Oriole who signed with the LG Twins for the 2018 season and settled in nicely as their staff ace. His strong campaign that year (9-4, 3.07 ERA in 170.0 IP with a 6.33 WAR) earned him another contract with the Twins. This season, Wilson is currently fourth in ERA (2.62) and seventh in WAR (2.85) among all pitchers while headlining the LG Twins rotation that has led the team to fourth place in the 10-team league.

Left-handed pitcher Chad Bell of the Hanwha Eagles is new to the KBO this season. Bell was signed along with fellow former Detroit Tiger Warwick Saupold to be the Eagles’ new rotation arms. Through 18 starts in the KBO, Bell is 5-9 with a 4.00 ERA and 78 strikeouts to 43 walks in 108.0 IP.

What were your first impressions after arriving in Korea?

Lindblom: When I first signed here, I didn’t know what to expect. I never had any reason to come to Asia at all. My expectation, to be honest, was kind of low. Just having a western mindset, you think that America is the best and when you get here, you realize that things that are different can be good too. It was good, but in a different way. You can’t really compare Asia to America. It’s like comparing an apple to an airplane.

Romak: My exact first impression was coming across the bridge from the Incheon International Airport into the Songdo area, which is where we live. It was nighttime, all the big buildings were lit up and it was very exciting. It was very cool. And of course, I was looking forward to the opportunity.

Wilson: We play in Seoul so it’s a huge city. I grew up in a small town in Virginia. I’ve lived in Virginia my whole life, so to see a big city like Seoul and get used to living here was an adjustment. There’s a lot of people, obviously. Different language. So just getting used to things I hadn’t seen before and routines I hadn’t partaken in before, like taking the subway every day to work, there were just a lot of different adjustments to the lifestyle.

Bell: The first thing that took over for me, on the baseball side of things, was the fans’ passion for the game. You just don’t see that everywhere. In this season’s first series – versus the Doosan Bears – when you look at Jamsil Stadium, and the place is split right down the middle between Doosan and Hanwha fans, and everybody’s going insane for nine innings. It was unreal. Off the field, the main differences were cultural ones. Food, communication, etc., stuff like that. Some places it’s easier and some places it’s harder. You just have to get used to it. On the baseball field, you’re playing baseball. I have to use a translator to communicate with people, but in the end, it’s the same game but the atmosphere is electric. Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Reliever on the Trade Market

We have arrived at the part of the season where teams start to identify themselves as buyers and sellers. In turn, we can start assessing which players are likely to be traded.

The San Francisco Giants are clearly sellers. Stuck in last place in the NL West, with one of the weakest farm systems in baseball, the Giants need an influx of young talent. Madison Bumgarner will almost certainly be traded, but come the end of the month, he shouldn’t be the only Giants lefty on the move.

Will Smith was once a failed starter for the Royals. The Brewers acquired him in exchange for Nori Aoki prior to the 2014 season, and quickly turned him into a successful reliever. He was traded to the Giants near the deadline in 2016, and after missing the entire 2017 season with Tommy John surgery, he came back as an even better reliever, maintaining his high whiff rates while throwing more strikes. Smith is now one of the top closers in the league, and contenders will be lining up for his services.

Several surface numbers — including his 40.9% strikeout rate and 6.1% walk rate – indicate that the lefty has pitched well this season. But perhaps nothing underscores the point like WPA. Relievers are often thrust into high-leverage situations without much room for error, and in that regard, Smith has starred:

2019 Reliever WPA Ranking
Pitcher WPA
Will Smith 3.10
Josh Hader 2.82
Kirby Yates 2.48
Felipe Vazquez 2.41
Scott Oberg 2.08
John Gant 2.01
Taylor Rogers 1.93
Alex Colome 1.70
Shane Greene 1.50
Sergio Romo 1.46

WPA isn’t designed to predict a player’s future success: It’s just a measure of how they have harmed or enhanced their team’s chances of winning. Still, it’s useful in evaluating relievers, as the context in which they are deployed shapes our understanding of their performance. By this measure, Smith has clearly thrived.

Quietly, Smith has been a pretty solid reliever for a few years now. In 2018, he posted career-low walk rate (7.1%) while striking out well over a hitter per inning. Back in the offseason, Jeff Sullivan examined Smith’s brilliance, concluding that his strong numbers and San Francisco’s needs made him an obvious trade candidate. This season, he’s been even better. Here’s how he ranks among major league relievers in several important categories:

Will Smith ranks vs. other ML relievers (min. qualified IP)
41.1 (4th) 6.5% (37th least) 34.7 (4th) 49 (7th) 47 (3rd) 2.03 (5th)

Smith’s rise from a good reliever to an elite one can be partly explained by a small shift in his pitch mix. Last year, Smith threw his slider 36% of the time, establishing it as his main go-to weapon. It induced a .129 wOBA and a .129 xwOBA. This season, it’s got even deadlier, good for a .120 wOBA and a .108 xwOBA, even as he’s thrown it more often (42.1%). To better illustrate his slider’s effectiveness, here are a couple of gifs for your viewing pleasure:

Smith will be a free agent this winter, and so he’s just a rental. That’s dings the potential return San Francisco’s brass can expect to receive, but Smith will still fetch some talent that could help the club long-term. To get an idea of how he could be valued, let’s compare his 2019 numbers to those of other relievers who were traded as half-season rentals in recent years.

2019 Will Smith vs. Rental Relievers Traded During Deadline Season
Pitcher Year K% BB% HR/9 IP FIP WPA WAR
Zack Britton 2018 20.6% 16.4% 0.51 4.41 -0.28 0.0
Mark Melancon 2016 23.3% 5.5% 0.43 2.67 1.83 0.9
Addison Reed 2017 24.0% 3.0% 1.10 3.16 2.30 0.9
Will Smith 2019 41.5% 5.9% 0.84 2.01 3.10 1.2
Jeurys Familia 2018 25.9% 8.1% 0.19 2.43 0.28 1.4
Joakim Soria 2018 29.1% 6.9% 0.43 2.27 0.46 1.4
Anthony Swarzak 2017 27.8% 7.2% 0.54 2.62 1.63 1.6
Aroldis Chapman 2016 37.9% 6.1% 0.51 1.72 2.09 1.7

Smith’s numbers look top-notch even when compared to this stellar group. One could make an argument that Smith has performed better this season than Aroldis Chapman at the time he was traded in 2016, though the Giants certainly won’t be acquiring a prospect of Gleyber Torres’s caliber.

As always, several teams pushing for the playoffs are in need of bullpen help. The following clubs in particular could really use Smith’s services:

Potential Buyers With Bullpen Need
Team Playoff Odds Bullpen ERA Bullpen FIP Bullpen WAR
Red Sox 58.2% 4.37 4.12 2.7
Twins 97.3% 4.28 4.21 2.6
Braves 94.1% 3.81 4.53 0.6
Phillies 24.2% 4.79 4.99 -0.1
Nationals 59.9% 6.30 4.82 0.3
Cubs 78.9% 3.99 4.42 0.8
Dodgers 100.0% 4.26 4.32 1.4

While just about any contender could find a place for Smith, teams with deep bullpens — like the Rays, Brewers and Indians — will probably be looking to bolster other parts of their roster. In addition to the teams listed above, the Astros are also a potential partner. Houston’s relievers have pitched very well, but they don’t have a southpaw in their bullpen right now.

With so many contending teams needing to beef up their bullpens, Smith will attract plenty of calls to the Giants front office. That’s a good news for San Francisco: the more suitors, the better their leverage. The odds are that, come August, Smith is going to make someone else’s bullpen happier. We just don’t know who, and for what return, quite yet.

The Best Fastball of 2019

We are truly living in the age of blazing fastballs. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, and measurements like spin rates are getting recognized as a crucial tool for effectiveness. At the same time, the fastball is also getting rarer than ever, but the pitch is still quite valuable and that will never change. Having the most valuable fastball in the league is something that will catch a lot of fans’, scouts’, and front office members’ attention.

It’s easy to think that the most effective fastball in 2019 would be that of a classic fireballer. One could guess names like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, or Max Scherzer. While those three are all having good seasons, our metrics have so far crowned someone else as having the best fastball of 2019 so far. The current fastball champ is none other than Jake Odorizzi. Depending on how much you’ve been following the Twins, you may be surprised to hear that Odorizzi has a 2.24 ERA and a 3.00 FIP in 14 starts this year. He’s boasting a career-best 28.3% strikeout rate while limiting home runs (0.71 HR/9IP) despite being an extreme fly-ball pitcher (29.4% ground-ball rate). Prior to this year, Odorizzi’s been known as a decent, middle-to-back-end pitcher, but not quite a top-of-the-rotation caliber starter like he’s been this season.

Arsenal-wise, Odorizzi’s fastball has been his best pitch in his career. It has accumulated 59.6 in wFB while the only other pitch that netted a positive value is his slider at 2.9. His other pitches — a cutter (-10.3), curveball (-8.2), and changeup (-18.9), have not. He’s done that without significantly backing off fastball usage, having used it 55.4% of the time in his career. This year, that figure is that 60.7%, which is the highest after his debut 2012 season (71.1%) in which he made only seven starts. Read the rest of this entry »

Yankees Acquire Edwin, Continue to Stockpile Power

Edwin Encarnacion is 36 years old now, but age hasn’t stopped him from mashing baseballs. Among qualified American League hitters, he ranks 12th in wRC+ (139), leads the league in home runs (21), and is fourth in isolated power (.290). He’s accrued 1.7 WAR, which is pretty good at this point of the season, especially given his subpar defense. Of course, nobody is employing Encarnacion for his glove.

When Seattle acquired Encarnacion this past offseason, everybody knew he’d be traded sooner rather than later. The Mariners are in the midst of a rebuild and are reportedly “trying to trade everyone” before the July 31 deadline. Encarnacion, with his age and contract, was an obvious candidate to be moved.

It only took until the middle of June for the Mariners to find a suitor. The Yankees now employ Edwin Encarnacion.

Yankees Get:

  • 1B/3B/DH Edwin Encarnacion (though it’s likely he’ll primarily be a DH)

Mariners Get:

Let’s touch on the Mariners’ return first before talking about the big parrot in the room. Juan Then was actually a Mariners farmhand two years ago. The Yankees acquired Then (and minor league hurler JP Sears) during the 2017-18 offseason in exchange for Nick Rumbelow.

Then is only 19 years old and he’s still in rookie ball. Prior to this season, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel ranked Then as the No. 31 prospect in New York’s system, noting that he is “advanced for his age” but has “middling stuff and physical projection.” It’s worth noting that Then seems to have developed a better fastball in the Yankees system. But again, it’s awfully hard to project a 19-year-old who hasn’t reached full-season ball. We know he’s a young arm of some promise, but the delta in his potential outcomes is very wide.

As an interesting side note, reports suggest that the Mariners chose to deal Encarnacion to the Yankees because New York was willing to absorb more money than other interested clubs. By prioritizing salary flexibility, Seattle’s move is somewhat reminiscent of how the Marlins handled the Giancarlo Stanton trade, in which the Yankees gave up significantly less player value to bring in another slugger because they were able to take on big money. It’s not ideal for rebuilding teams to prioritize monetary value over player return on transactions, but it is what it is. Money is a big part of how organizations operate, and sometimes you’re going to see deals like that. Read the rest of this entry »

How One Man Changed Korean Baseball

Heo Koo-Yeon in his office

Heo Koo-Yeon is one of the biggest names in Korean baseball history. At this moment, you could say that he is the most influential figure in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Heo was originally an athlete. As a star high school player, he partook in international competitions in the pre-KBO era of Korean baseball. Starting 1982, the inaugural KBO season, he has been a commentator (with a brief detour to a managing job for the Chungbo Pintos in 1986). Outside of the broadcasting job, Heo’s contributed in speaking for the better overall infrastructure and facilities around KBO. He influenced the building of many of the newer KBO venues, which were built closer to the modern style rather than the old high-school style that classic venues adhered to. Most recently, he advised on the construction of the new NC Dinos venue, Changwon NC Park, which is said to be “major league quality” by many. Outside of KBO, he’s also donated close to $100,000 to build Cambodia’s first baseball stadium and helped build a ballpark in Vietman as well. As a baseball lifer who saw the growth of the sport in Korea, he has his vision set on continuing to build baseball in unfamiliar areas.

At 68 years old, Heo is still going strong as a commentator for the MBC while serving as an adviser to the commissioner for the KBO. I sat down in his office to talk about his relationship with MLB, the road to the advent of first Korean major leaguer, and the status of Korean amateur players wanting to sign with a major league club.

Beginning of the MLB – KBO relationship:

As a baseball lifer, Heo, like many others in Korea, was influenced by the Japanese idea of baseball from the time he was an athlete.

“Starting in 1968, as a high school player representing Korea, I’ve been back and forth to Japan a lot,” he recalled. “We knew that our baseball system, at the time, was quite Japan-based. Our leaders and managers were educated during the Japanese occupation era (1910-45).” In 1984, Heo had a chance to go to the United States, thanks to Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley.

“O’Malley emphasized the globalization of baseball and invited me.” Heo got to go to Vero Beach and Dodgertown for their spring training camp. It was the first time Heo got to see the major league players with his own eyes.

“That, in the big picture, changed and influenced my life,” Heo says. “It also influenced Korean baseball a lot. I would say it was the turning point of our nation’s baseball.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Other Catcher Who’s Killing The Ball

Let’s play a little game. Here is a Statcast leaderboard of the Barrels per plate appearances leaders (minimum 50 batted ball events). Without looking it up, try to figure out who’s behind Gary Sanchez:

Barrels/PA% Leaders
Player Maximum Exit Velocity Average Exit Velocity Barrels/PA%
Gary Sanchez 118.3 93.3 15.6
Mystery Player 110.5 92.2 14.1
Matt Olson 110.6 89.9 12.8
Jose Abreu 113.7 92.1 12.6
Joey Gallo 113.7 96.3 12.6
Pete Alonso 118.3 90.6 12.1
Anthony Rendon 107.7 92.6 11.8
Freddie Freeman 112.0 91.0 11.6
George Springer 114.2 91.9 11.6
SOURCE: Statcast

I’ll give you a hint: he’s a catcher. Another hint: he’s on the Minnesota Twins. And no, it’s not Willians Astudillo, as much as we wish it were him. The answer is Jason Castro. Granted, Castro only has 92 plate appearances to his name this season. He also has accumulated 2,839 plate appearances over his career and, as far as Statcast has detected since 2015, he’s never hit the ball this hard. His career-high in average exit velocity was 88.6 mph back in 2015. He’s coming off a 2018 season during which he hit for an average exit velocity of 86.8 mph, his lowest in the Statcast era. In 2019? 92.6 mph. Here’s the difference between 2019 Jason Castro and his 2015-2018 self:

Jason Castro Statcast Data
Season Barrel% Exit Velocity Launch Angle xSLG xOBA Hard Hit%
2015 6.2 88.6 15.6 0.351 0.284 31.1
2016 9.7 88.5 10.8 0.399 0.301 40.1
2017 6.8 86.9 12.8 0.407 0.315 32.0
2018 5.3 86.8 8.2 0.273 0.231 31.3
2019 23.0 92.2 16.0 0.662 0.408 50.8
SOURCE: Statcast

Read the rest of this entry »

John Means’ Changeup Means Business

Fine, I’ll say it: The Baltimore Orioles aren’t fun to watch. The team just lost its 38th game and is on pace for a 113-loss season. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing fun about them. John Means can be fun. A lot of the fun comes from the fact that he’s not someone you would have expected to lead a starting rotation in ERA and WAR coming into the year, but he is (albeit tied with Andrew Cashner at 0.6).

Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Means only had one major league appearance and five seasons of minor league ball to his name (while spending almost two seasons in Double-A). An 11th-round pick in 2014 out of the University of West Virginia, Means was never considered to be a top prospect. He went unmentioned in our Orioles top prospects list coming into this season, for instance. Because there weren’t meany extensive reports on Means available on the internet, I asked Luke Siler of Orioles Hangout for his assessment of the left-hander as a minor leaguer.

Before the improvements, Means was that typical Triple-A depth player who performed well enough to keep fans intrigued but not well enough to merit an MLB role. The profile was a fastball topping at 92, but sitting more 89~91 mph, a loopy below average curveball, a fringe average slider and an average changeup with average command… nothing was exciting but he mixes pitches well and can land them all for strikes.

Read the rest of this entry »