Through the first two weeks of the Korea Baseball Organization season, the NC Dinos have dominated the rest of the league, jumping out to an 11-2 start. On Tuesday’s ESPN-televised game, they beat the defending champion Doosan Bears, who have come back to the pack with a record of 8-5, that after handing the Dinos just their second loss of the season on Wednesday. The Dinos’ success thus far is worth a closer look, even from 7,000 miles and a language barrier away.
In Tuesday’s game at the Bears’ Jamsil Stadium in Seoul — the venue they share with the LG Twins, but like all KBO games thus far this year one devoid of fans due to the pandemic — the Dinos pounced on 23-year-old righty Young-ha Lee 이영하, the Bears’ third-best starter last year, for three first-inning runs, sending all nine hitters to the plate (Do KBO fans argue over the definition of “batting around” the way MLB fans do? I’m not here to create an international incident). Second baseman Min-woo Park 박민우 led off with a double and scored two batters later when designated hitter Sung-bum Na 나성범 singled.
— taewoongi (??) ? 11-1 (@taewoongii) May 19, 2020
Na took second on a balk, then scored on a single by catcher Euiji Yang 양의지, who himself came around to score thanks in part to a wild pitch and an infield single off a deflection. The Dinos ran the score to 4-0 in the second as Park drew a walk, took second on a very long single by center fielder Aaron Altherr 알테어 off the base of the outfield wall, advanced to third when Yang was hit by pitch to load the bases, and scored on a sacrifice fly by third baseman Sok Min Park 박석민.
(A note to users: in case you’re wondering how to get your fix of play-by-play action after the fact, MyKBOstats offers English-language box scores. When possible, each box score page also offers links to highlights and the full replay on YouTube, all the more reason to drop by.)
Dinos starter Mike Wright 라이트, who spent parts of 2015-19 pitching for the Orioles and Mariners, worked around five walks, four hits, and a hit batsman to spin five scoreless but hardly spotless innings. The Bears left the bases loaded in the first inning and stranded an additional five baserunners in scoring position during Wright’s five frames. Not until the seventh, when they were down 5-0, did they break through via a Jose Miguel Fernandez 페르난데스 single, a Joo-hwan Choi 최주환 double, and a two-run Jaeho Kim 김재호 single. They added two more in the eighth to trim the lead to 5-4, and put the tying run on base with two outs in the ninth, but closer Jong-hyun Won 원종현 shut the door by getting the final four outs.
At least judging by Twitter — dicey territory, admittedly — the umpiring was a point of contention during the game. Recall that on May 8, a KBO umpiring crew was demoted for enforcing an inconsistent strike zone in an SK Wyverns-Hanhwa Eagles game. That crew returned for this game, and the calls apparently weren’t great either, with this ninth-inning called strike three against Altherr standing out among them:
— taewoongi (??) ? 11-1 (@taewoongii) May 19, 2020
If you’ve been reading this space, you know that the Dinos — who notably featured slugger Eric Thames 테임즈 from 2014-16, and whose muscular brontosaurus mascot has become known as “Swole Daddy” — have a reputation as being the KBO’s most entertaining team. Na, Yang, and both Parks are some of the league’s most watchable players. The Dinos do not have a long winning tradition, however, nor were they expected to be a powerhouse this year. They entered the league in 2013, and while they’ve made the playoffs in all but one season since, they’ve never finished higher than second, which they did in 2016, the same year they made what has been thus far their only trip to the KBO Series. Last year, their first in the brand new and much-lauded Changwon NC Park, they went 73-69-2 en route to a fifth-place finish in the 10-team league, then lost to the Twins in the Wild Card game. Per Dan Szymborski’s admittedly rough KBO projections, the Dinos were forecast to be the league’s fourth-best team, with an 11.6% chance of finishing first.
Instead, not only have the Dinos stomped all over the league thus far, they’ve practically lapped the field. Check out the numbers through Tuesday:
Through the Dino’s first 12 games — the stretch covering all of the numbers in this article — their run differential is about two-and-a-half times that of the next-closest team, the Heroes. They’re scoring over six runs per game, but rank just fourth in that department; however, they’re the only team allowing fewer than four runs per game, and one of just three allowing fewer than five per game. Here it’s worth noting the league’s offensive context:
Last year, in an attempt to rein in offensive levels, the KBO de-juiced the baseball, introducing a heavier ball with a lower coefficient of restitution and less carry. The specs on this year’s ball are apparently the same, but home runs and scoring are up, apparently because batters are hitting the ball harder. Via Jeeho Yoo of Yonhap News:
Based on batted-ball data through last Saturday, KBO batters are averaging 141.2 kilometers per hour (kph) in exit velocity on line drives, and 135.8 kph on flyballs, both about 3 kph faster than 2019. Those numbers are back to the 2016-2018 levels, when the KBO sluggers were putting up video-game numbers.
The hard-hit rate, which shows the percentage of batted balls hit at 150 kph or more, went up from 22.4 percent this time last year to 27 percent this year.
The average exit velocity for home runs, 155.8 kph, and the average distance for home runs, 116.1 meters, were on pars with last year’s numbers.
Note that such Statcast-like numbers aren’t publicly available; via Yoo, the data comes from Sports 2i, the official stat provider for the league. Warmer conditions due to the later start to the season might be a contributing factor, as could lower velocities by pitchers. On the ESPN broadcast and via Twitter, Daniel Kim reported that one top hitter offered a theory that without fans in the stands, pitchers aren’t getting the same adrenaline rush. It’s a plausible theory. (Brendan Gawlowski has more on the topic of juiced baseballs at Baseball Prospectus.)
Back to the Dinos, on the offensive side, they’re following the time-honored recipe of power and patience. Although they went homerless on Tuesday, they lead the league with 18 homers, though Na (four) and Park (three) are the only players with more than two; at this writing, four players are tied for the league lead with five, namely Dong-min Han 한동민 of the otherwise struggling Wyverns, Baek-ho Kang 강백호 of the Wiz, Roberto Ramos of the Twins, and ex-major leaguer Preston Tucker 터커 of the Tigers. Na has already matched last year’s total, which he made in just 23 games before he tore up his right knee in an injury you should most definitely not Google while eating.
Meanwhile, per Statiz — my source here for all team level and advanced stats — the Dinos’ 51 walks and 10.2% walk rate are both tops as well, and Sok Min Park has the league’s third-highest walk rate (18.2%). By far and a way, their hottest hitter overall has been Min-woo Park, who like Yang won the KBO Golden Gloves Award as the league’s best player at his position last year. His 188 wRC+ (.417/.482/.646) is seventh in the league, and he’s struck out just once (!) in 54 plate appearances. Only two regulars, Altherr (56 wRC+) and left fielder Myung-ki Lee 이명기 (60 wRC+) have been below average, leaving pitchers few places to hide.
On the other side of the ball, the Dinos are a close second in strikeout rate (21.2%) behind KIA (21.4%), but they have the third-highest walk rate (10.0%) and fifth-lowest home run rate (1.05 per nine). Thus, their 4.84 FIP is just 0.06 below the league average, and the 1.52 runs per nine gap between that figure and their ERA (3.32) is the largest in either direction by nearly one-quarter of a run; the Bears, at the other end of the spectrum, have a 6.22 ERA but a 4.93 FIP.
What has separated the Dinos from the rest of the league is a .271 batting average on balls in play, 23 points lower than the next-lowest team (the Eagles) and 86 points better than the worst team (you guessed it, the Bears). How much of that is the defenders and how much is the pitchers generating soft contact, I can’t tell you, but as we’re talking about two weeks worth of data, it’s really just for illustrative purposes anyway. The Dinos did have the league’s second-best defense last year based on what Statiz calls “WAAwithADJ” which is presumably wins above average with the positional adjustment thrown in, or defensive WAR; of course, it’s not actually necessary to throw in the adjustments when you’re talking about full team comparisons.
Individually, the star for the Dinos on the pitching side has been 23-year-old lefty Chang-mo Koo 구창모. Coming off a breakout season, he’s thrown 14 shutout innings thus far while striking out 18, allowing just six hits and walking three. He’s the only KBO pitcher who has thrown more than six innings and has yet to allow a run, and his 1.76 FIP is 0.04 ahead of KIA’s Aaron Brooks. Wright owns a 1.69 ERA but a gaudy 5.18 FIP in his three turns, while the Dinos’ other foreign-born starter, Drew Rucinski 루친스키, has a 3.63 ERA and 4.61 FIP (for more on these guys’ backgrounds, check out Ben Clemens’ introduction to the league’s foreign players). The rotation’s collective 2.46 ERA is the best in the league by half a run, and more than two runs below the league average for starters (4.55), while the bullpen has been serviceable; its 4.79 ERA is nearly two-thirds of a run below the league average for relievers (a ghastly 5.42). While depth is an issue in the league, particularly when it comes to bullpens, that split is unusually large; the league-wide starter and reliever ERAs have been pretty similar in each of the past two seasons despite the variable scoring levels.
Aside from the fact that this is, after all, just two weeks of baseball and no more valid than the first two weeks of any season’s MLB results (though it does represent a slightly larger share of the KBO’s 144-game slate), one thing worth noting is the big discrepancy between the Dinos’ opponents as projected versus their actual results to date. With three games apiece against the Lions, Tigers, and Wiz (oh my!), two against the Twins and one against the Bears, the weighted projected winning percentage of the Dinos’ opponents is .498, almost exactly what you’d expect given the team’s own 78-66 projection. But with the Wyverns — who finished second during the regular season last year, at 88-55-1 — belly-flopping out of the gate, the actual weighted winning percentage of the slate is just .360, though it jumps to .440 if you’re weighting only those teams’ non-Dinos games.
For many North American fans, the odd hours of the KBO’s ESPN broadcasts present a daunting barrier to digging into the foreign league, and even finding out where to get deeper statistical information (beyond our relatively recent additions) can be a challenge. Still, there’s a LOT of fun to be had with the KBO, and with at least another six weeks before we get live MLB — if we’re lucky — it’s worth paying closer attention if you want some baseball in your diet.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.