Archive for KBO

Tyler White Heads to South Korea, Where He’ll Buck a Trend

It wasn’t too long ago — just shy of two years, in fact — that Tyler White appeared to have found his spot in the majors, emerging as the hottest hitter on a 103-win juggernaut Astros team. Now, the 29-year-old first baseman is heading to the Korea Baseball Organization to join the SK Wyverns, a decision that makes sense given that he both couldn’t find space in any team’s 60-player pool and that there’s no minor league season. In joining the struggling Wyverns, he’ll be bucking a league-wide trend, as theirs will be the only lineup featuring two foreign-born players.

The current iteration of the KBO roster rules allows teams to carry three foreign-born players, a maximum of two of whom can be pitchers; prior to 2014, the maximum was two. This year, every team in the league has gone with two foreign-born pitchers and one hitter, with the Wyverns using Nick Kingham 킹엄 and Ricardo Pinto 핀토 in their rotation and Jamie Romak 로맥 as their first baseman. As I noted on May 22, however, Kingham made just two starts before suffering an elbow injury of an unspecified nature (getting to the bottom of KBO injuries is a challenge). While initial reports suggested that he might miss only a couple of starts, he didn’t even return to playing catch until late June, and on July 2, the team waived him, opening up a spot for another foreign-born player.

The recent history of lineups with two foreign-born players is a short one. Last year, the Samsung Lions featured Darin Ruf 러프 as their regular first baseman and occasional designated hitter, with outfielder Mac Williamson 윌리엄슨 joining the team in midseason. Because of a rule in place at the time, the team was only allowed to use only two foreign-born players in a game, so one of them had to sit whenever Deck McGuire 맥과이어 or Ben Lively 라이블리 (who replaced McGuire shortly after Williamson arrived) started. Read the rest of this entry »


Mel Rojas Jr.’s 2020 Season Could Become One of the Greats

In the third inning of ESPN’s broadcast of a tilt between the KT Wiz and the Kia Tigers on Wednesday, Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez welcomed on former 10-year major leaguer Mel Rojas. The timing worked out well — the fourth batter of the inning was his son, Mel Rojas Jr. 로하스, who stepped to the plate with runners at second and third and one out in a 1-1 game.

“He’s smart,” Mel Sr. said. “He knows he’s not getting a good pitch to hit. He’s patient.” The son proved the father right, fouling off two strikes while taking three balls. With the count full, Perez asked the elder Mel what he would throw his son in this situation, with first base open and two outs. “Split,” he responded. “… I would not throw it for a strike.”

Indeed, he got the splitter from Tigers pitcher Min-woo Lee 이민우, but the pitch hung, crossing the plate at the knees. The younger Rojas flicked his bat effortlessly through the zone, slapping a base hit to center that plated two runs. On the broadcast, his father hardly budged. Two innings later — with his father now off-screen but presumably still watching — Rojas came through with a runner in scoring position again, hitting another two-out RBI single to help push the Wiz to a 7-4 victory.

No one in the KBO is more dependable than Rojas with men on base right now, because there is simply no one hitting better in general. He’s within striking distance of the standard triple crown (third in batting average, first in RBI, first in homers), as well as the triple slash crown (fourth in OBP, first in slugging). In fact, across the board, there is no one having kind of season at the plate that Rojas is.

Mel Rojas Jr. KBO Ranks, 2020
Metric Value Rank
BA .374 3rd
OBP .426 4th
SLG .707 1st
OPS 1.133 1st
HR 19 1st
RBI 52 1st
ISO .333 1st
wRC+ 189 1st

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In the KBO, the Dinos Still Dominate

It’s been a little while since we checked in on the Korean Baseball Organization. During Major League Baseball’s struggle to resume play in 2020 — both with fair compensation for players and proper health and safety precautions taken — entire seasons are well underway overseas, not only in South Korea but also in Japan and Taiwan. The KBO was the second to get started after the CPBL and thanks to an effective government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has had its teams play well over 50 games already, or about three-eights of their regular season. Back when the season was just two weeks old, my colleague Jay Jaffe wrote about a league the NC Dinos were already starting to dominate. Six weeks later, very little has changed.

KBO Standings, July 8, 2020
Team W L W% GB RS RA Run Differential
NC Dinos 37 17 0.685 346 266 80
Kiwoom Heroes 34 22 0.607 4.0 323 273 50
Doosan Bears 32 23 0.582 5.5 341 318 23
LG Twins 30 25 0.545 7.5 304 278 26
Samsung Lions 30 26 0.536 8.0 298 267 31
Kia Tigers 27 25 0.519 9.0 251 241 10
KT Wiz 27 28 0.491 10.5 324 310 14
Lotte Giants 25 28 0.472 11.5 255 264 -14
SK Wyverns 17 38 0.309 20.5 205 286 -81
Hanwha Eagles 14 41 0.255 23.5 194 338 -144

After storming out of the gates with an 11-1 start, the Dinos have yet to relinquish first place, with the team still yet to hit any kind of a real rough patch. Their .685 winning percentage would set them on pace for about a 111-win season in MLB. Even if you strip away their 11-1 start — a run that even a team like, say, the early-season 2019 Mariners can approximate — their record since is still a sparkling 26-16, which equates to about 100 wins in a typical MLB season.

When the Dinos were covered here in May, they were said to be wearing teams out with power and patience. A few weeks later, the patience has diminished, but the intimidating power remains very much alive. The team leads the KBO in slugging (.487) by a good margin, and has hit the most homers in the league with 79. They’ve dropped to fifth in walks drawn, but their power has been enough to keep them the top-scoring team in the league at 6.52 runs per game.

As Jay mentioned, this kind of success for the Dinos has come as a surprise to KBO fans. They haven’t advanced to the Korean Series since 2016, and last year, they finished fifth with a record of 73-69-2; Dan Szymborski’s projections gave them just an 11.6% chance to win the league this year, forecasting them to finish fourth. They’ve surpassed those expectations, though, by having out-of-nowhere breakouts from a number of now-key players.

The Dinos’ lineup is positively relentless. Eight qualified hitters have a wRC+ of at least 110, and four of those rank in the top 10 hitters in the entire league. Jin-sung Kang 강진성 is the best of the bunch, hitting .365/.403/.623 for a 163 wRC+ that ranks third in the KBO. Hui-dong Kwon 권희동 (.312/.425/.558, 158 wRC+), Sung-bum Na 나성범 (.310/.378/.614, 154 wRC+), and Aaron Altherr 알테어 (.307/.380/.615, 154 wRC+), meanwhile, rank seventh, ninth and 10th in the KBO in wRC+, respectively. Each of these guys contributes to the team’s explosive pop — Na ranks second in the league with 15 homers, and Altherr is tied for third with 14.

That group of hitters is a great example of how the Dinos have blossomed. Of those four hitters, only Na had previously established a believable track record of success in the KBO. He entered the season coming off six consecutive seasons with a wRC+ of at least 120, and at 30 years old, he’s still in the prime of his career. It was always likely he’d mash this season — it was less clear whether he’d have much company. Kang, 26, had been a part-time player before this season, posting a wRC+ of 84 last season and 37 the year before. Kwon, 29, had already played six seasons in the KBO, and was above average at the plate in just two of them. Finally, there was Altherr, who as a foreign-born player had some expectations he would perform well, but was still new to the league.

All of those players have broken out in huge ways for the Dinos, and they aren’t alone. On the pitching side, I wrote about the brilliance of Chang-mo Koo 구창모 in the first month of the season and, well, it’s hard to say he’s gotten worse.

Chang-mo Koo KBO Ranks
Metric Value KBO Rank
Innings 66 8th
ERA 1.50 2nd
FIP 2.43 1st
Opp. BA .164 1st
HR/9 0.41 9th
BB% 4.9% 5th
K% 31.1% 1st
WHIP 0.76 1st

Both Statiz and KBO Fancy Stats give Koo the highest WAR of any player in the league this season, despite being a 23-year-old who first managed a FIP under 5.00 just last year. Alongside him in the rotation is Drew Rucinski 루친스키, another first-year KBO player from the U.S. whose 2.30 ERA ranks third in the league, and Mike Wright 라이트, who has outperformed an underwhelming FIP all season long, clocking in with a 3.63 ERA.

The rotation is brilliant at the top, but somewhat suspect at the bottom. If the Dinos have a weakness, it is that the back of their rotation has yet to really crystallize, with Jae-hak Lee 이재학, Sung-young Choi 최성영 and Young-kyu Kim 김영규 all carrying ERAs over 5.00. The story is similar in the bullpen, where Jong-hyun Won 원종현 (2.92 ERA in 24.2 innings) and Jae-whan Bae 배재환 (3.80 ERA in 23.2 innings) have been anchors, but everyone else has gotten hit very hard. It’s an unbalanced pitching staff, but because the offense is so deep — I haven’t even talked about former MVP catcher Euiji Yang 양의지 or longtime KBO stud Sok Min Park 박석민, both of whom are also in the league’s top 20 in wRC+ — that it just hasn’t mattered.

The Dinos aren’t without competition going forward, but no other team has posed a credible threat to their place at the top thus far. The second-place Heroes are sort of a portrait of dull competency — they rank fourth in scoring, on-base percentage, and slugging, and third in team ERA. Their pitching has been led more by finesse than power, as they rank first in BB/9 and eighth in K/9. The Bears, meanwhile, are more of a lesson in extremes. Their offense leads the KBO in OBP and SLG while running second in scoring, but their pitching staff is responsible for the second-highest ERA in the league. Both have had a few cracks at the Dinos this season, but so far, they’ve gone a combined 5-10. Their head-to-head matchups have only widened the gap between them.

All of this places the Dinos in a very good position to take the regular season, and if you need a reminder, that is a very big deal. The KBO playoff format rewards the regular season champion by giving it a bye directly to the Korean Series, with the next four teams having a progressively longer route to face them. The fourth and fifth seeds face each other in a best-of-five wild card round, the winner of that series faces the third seed in the quarterfinals, and so on.

Unlike the top spot, the remaining seeds ought to be highly contested all season. Part of that is due to the fact that the bottom of the league is so clearly defined — the SK Wyverns have gone through a poor enough stretch to nearly catch the Hanwha Eagles, who devoted a chunk of their season to perhaps the worst three-week run in baseball history. With a fifth of the league roughly 10 games behind everyone else, the clubs in front of them have gotten a boost.

Most of those teams have a significant enough strength that it’s easy to imagine them piecing together a hot streak that defines their season. The Kia Tigers, currently in sixth place in the standings, own the league’s best ERA. The seventh-place KT Wiz have scored the third-most runs per game. The road will be quite crowded for some time. But even with much of the season remaining, it seems clear that one team is in the fast lane.


ZiPS KBO Update: Dinos No Fluke, Eagles Have (Crash) Landed

Back before the Korean Baseball Organization’s Opening Day, I altered the methodology ZiPS uses to project Major League Baseball standings to do the same for the KBO’s 144-game season, as it was nearly the only game in town for viewers in the United States. Because projections aren’t written in stone, and are constantly in flux as actual on-field performance eviscerates old projections, I also update the ZiPS’ in-season methodology. After all, ZiPS is a large set of algorithms, not a time machine; the future never exactly matches the prognostications.

One interesting note is that offense has shot way up in the KBO in 2020. After dejuicing the baseballs for 2019, the league’s ERA dropped from 5.17 in 2018 to 4.17 last year. Nearly a third of the way through this season, that ERA is back up to 4.80, almost entirely due to a bit of a re-explosion of home runs. As far as I know, they haven’t re-juiced the baseball, so it will be interesting to see if this keeps up, and if so, do we see similar results in Nippon Professional Baseball or MLB, possibly as a result of pitchers having less time to prepare for the season?

But enough of that; let’s get to the updated projections.

2020 ZiPS KBO In-Season Projections, 6/22
Team W L GB PCT 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th Playoffs
NC Dinos 88 56 .611 42.1% 25.7% 17.3% 9.9% 3.7% 98.7%
Kiwoom Heroes 85 59 3 .590 26.3% 26.5% 22.2% 15.1% 6.9% 97.0%
Doosan Bears 84 60 4 .583 20.1% 24.5% 23.5% 18.2% 8.9% 95.3%
LG Twins 81 63 7 .563 9.8% 17.1% 22.0% 24.4% 15.3% 88.7%
Kia Tigers 74 70 14 .514 1.6% 5.1% 10.2% 17.6% 27.2% 61.7%
Lotte Giants 67 77 21 .465 0.1% 0.5% 1.9% 5.4% 12.5% 20.4%
Samsung Lions 66 78 22 .458 0.0% 0.3% 1.4% 4.4% 10.9% 17.0%
KT Wiz 64 80 24 .444 0.0% 0.1% 0.7% 2.7% 7.4% 10.9%
SK Wyverns 64 80 24 .444 0.0% 0.2% 0.7% 2.3% 7.2% 10.4%
Hanwha Eagles 48 96 40 .333 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

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The Hanwha Eagles Have Made Some Unfortunate History

It fell several steps short of a rally, but it was the closest Hanwha had gotten to one in weeks. Down 5-0 against the Doosan Bears in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Eagles finally showed life with a pair of singles, the second of which resulted in an error in left that allowed the first to score. A wild pitch, a walk, and a fielder’s choice later, the Eagles had a second run. The tying run was in the on-deck circle, and one of the KBO’s most volatile bullpens was about to use its fifth reliever. Sometimes, this is how the improbable happens. But Hanwha was in the process of defying a much different set of odds — one that is far less fun than prying victory from the jaws of defeat.

The Eagles fell to Doosan 5-2 on Friday, giving them their 18th loss in a row, a stretch of futility with no end in sight and nearly no precedent. In the history of the Korean Baseball Organization, only the 1985 Sammi Superstars have lost as many games consecutively; one more loss would place Hanwha in a class by themselves. In over 150 years of Major League Baseball, an 18-game losing streak has happened just 22 times, with only two of those occurring in the last 40 seasons. Read the rest of this entry »


Matt Harvey Faces Obstacles to a KBO Stint

Matt Harvey doesn’t figure to pitch in a major league game anytime soon, not only because the 2020 season might not get off the ground but because his stint with the Angels last year was rather disastrous — so much so that he’s currently unsigned. However, there’s baseball going on in South Korea, and last week, a report by SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) surfaced that he’s received interest from at least one KBO team. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman confirmed that multiple teams have been in touch with Boras Corp (which represents Harvey), and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman added that teams in Japan “are looking” at Harvey as well.

The 31-year-old righty has been posting videos of his workouts via Instagram, and last month told the New York Post’s Dan Martin of his job search in general:

“I’m throwing bullpens once or twice a week. I hope I get the opportunity. I feel like I’m in high school again, where I have to showcase myself and start all over. I just want to put myself in position to be ready and if it doesn’t work out, to know I put the effort in to make a comeback.”

…“I’ve grown up and matured on and off the field,” Harvey said. “There are a lot of things I’d do differently, but I don’t like to live with regret.”

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The Samsung Lions’ Rotation Has Turned the Tide

If you were one of the enthusiastic baseball fans who got an early start on tuning into ESPN’s first several broadcasts of the Korean Baseball Organization, there’s a good chance you’re already somewhat familiar with the Samsung Lions. The network carried their games four times in their first week of coverage, and the Lions spent a good amount of that time losing. A 4-0 loss to the NC Dinos on KBO Opening Day quickly turned into a three-game sweep, during which the Lions were outscored 16-5. They bounced back with two series wins against the Kia Tigers and Kiwoom Heroes, but that was undone by a stretch of seven losses in eight games, which set the Lions’ record back to 5-12.

The sluggish start was an unwelcome one for an organization that went from winning four straight Korean Series championships from 2011-14 to missing the playoffs entirely in each of the last four seasons. With a 60-83-1 record in 2019, the Lions are coming off the second-worst season by win percentage in the history of the franchise. Fortunately for them, however, the last couple of weeks have seen them trending in a much better direction. They’ve won seven of their last 10 games, including two series victories against the Dinos and Twins — the top two teams in the KBO by record. And the difference in that turnaround has been the team’s starting rotation.

Through the Lions’ first 17 games, they allowed 106 runs, the second-highest total in the KBO. During their 7-3 run, they’ve allowed just 43 — the second-fewest in that time frame. That’s a significant improvement, and the team’s starters have been the driving force behind it. In fact, the rotation was already beginning to turn the corner two full weeks ago. Here’s a breakdown of the team’s starter and reliever splits from the first 13 games, compared to their last 14:

Samsung Lions SP/RP Splits
Game Range Starter ERA Bullpen ERA
1-13 6.75 3.67
14-27 2.95 5.85

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Roberto Ramos’ Youth and Power Stand out in the KBO

While the NC Dinos bolted from the gate by winning 17 of their first 20 games — the best start in the history of the Korea Baseball Organization — the LG Twins have been the league’s hottest team of late. After starting the season 2-4, the Twins have won 14 of 18; through Tuesday, they stood just two games behind the Dinos (18-6). This run has been largely powered by first baseman Roberto Ramos 라모스, who recently homered four times in five games, and leads the league with 10 dingers overall.

Ramos, a 25-year-old lefty swinger who spent 2014-19 in the Rockies chain, began his latest jag with a walk-off grand slam against the KT Wiz’s Min Kim 김민 김민 on May 24, turning a 7-5 deficit into a 9-7 win :

Two days later, in a 3-0 shutout win over the Hanhwa Eagles, he put the Twins on the board first with a solo shot off reliever Yi-hwan Kim 김이환:

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Chang-mo Koo Is Always Ahead

Modern baseball writers are a somewhat spoiled bunch. If you’re writing a story about an MLB player, you have seemingly countless resources at your disposal to gather more statistics than you might know what to do with. For example, say that I wanted to write about Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Shane Bieber. His player page on this site lists any standard or advanced metric I could want, along with info on things like how hard he throws his fastball and how often opponents chase his pitches out of the zone. If I see he struck out 259 batters in 2019, and want to know how many other pitchers in the live ball era struck out at least 250 batters in just their second big league season, I can use Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to find the answer. If I want to get more specific, and learn how many times Bieber struck out a right-handed hitter with a breaking ball out of the zone, Baseball Savant’s search feature has me covered there too.

When it comes to writing about foreign professional leagues, however, the wealth of information isn’t quite so grand for the American writer. Sites like MyKBO.net and Statiz are great resources, and our KBO leaderboards tell us a lot of great stuff — like the fact that NC Dinos left-hander Chang-mo Koo 구창모 leads all pitchers in both ERA and FIP after four starts – but if you want to dig into why or how he’s doing that, we don’t have the pitch-by-pitch data to identify things like velocity, spin rate, or how batters are performing against individual offerings. That hasn’t diminished my curiosity about Koo, though, so I used the tools available to me — Twitch and ESPN archives of game broadcasts, a notepad, and my own two eyes — to track his pitches over his first four starts, in the hope that doing so would reveal something interesting. Fortunately, both for myself and my editor who enjoys for me to have story ideas, it did. Read the rest of this entry »


Half a World Away and Right at Home: Sciambi and Perez on Broadcasting the KBO

It’s 1 AM on a Saturday night in mid-May, and in his otherwise quiet New York City apartment, Jon Sciambi is getting ready for work. As his neighbors snooze, Sciambi, a veteran TV and radio announcer for ESPN, goes over box scores and lineups in his home broadcast studio ahead of the upcoming LG Twins-Kiwoom Heroes game in the KBO, Korea’s professional baseball league. With MLB – Sciambi’s regular assignment – on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, his job now is to do play by play for games featuring teams and players that, a few weeks prior, he barely knew (if he knew them at all), doing so from thousands of miles away while stuck at home like so many other Americans. For both him and viewers around the country, the KBO is the only game in town, and one that Sciambi and the rest of his ESPN counterparts are learning more or less on the fly.

“This is our baseball window, is the way I’m looking at it, and we’re trying to sort it out,” Sciambi says. “We’re trying to get as much information as we possibly can and put it out there and get good stories and talk baseball and have some fun, man. Smile and have some fun.”

Ordinarily during this time of year, Sciambi and ESPN would be working their way through the early part of the MLB season, traveling from coast to coast and bringing viewers big games from the biggest teams. But COVID-19 has upended both lives and leagues, leaving sports networks scrambling to fill slots that ordinarily would’ve gone not just to MLB, but also to the other major North American professional leagues, which also find themselves on hiatus. ESPN, which normally airs a handful of MLB games a week and spends countless hours parsing transactions and takes, was no exception, suddenly finding itself without any baseball at all as every league on the planet came to an indefinite halt.

The solution came in the form of the KBO. Thanks to a rigorous program of testing and contact tracing, South Korea was able to contain COVID-19 more quickly and effectively than other countries, allowing its citizenry to resume a semblance of normal life. That included its professional league, which had been forced to stop spring training in mid-March and delay its Opening Day. A month later, though, the KBO announced that it would return at the beginning of May, albeit in stadiums without fans and with social distancing measures, such as no handshakes, high fives, or spitting. Aside from Taiwan’s CPBL, it would be the only professional league in action — and as the highest-caliber baseball available, it became an immediate draw for ESPN. Read the rest of this entry »