Half a World Away, the Korea Baseball Organization Looks to Play

There’s no joy in Mudville or anywhere else in the United States as far as the 2020 baseball season goes, but halfway around the globe, the story is very different. The Chinese Professional Baseball League regular season got underway on April 11 in Taiwan, and the Korea Baseball Organization is poised to resume its exhibition season in South Korea on April 21, also without fans in attendance, with an eye towards beginning its regular season in early May. The twist is that both leagues are playing to empty ballparks due to prohibitions against large gatherings as a means of combating the spread of the novel coronavirus. But where Major League Baseball is staring down the very real possibility that its entire season could be wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both foreign leagues have been able to reopen thanks to their respective countries’ success in containing the outbreak, even if it’s not quite business as usual. Now, through the magic of streaming video, and possibly television, they’re poised to become the center of the baseball world.

Already, the five-team CPBL has begun streaming games on Twitter (in English, via Eleven Sports) and YouTube. For about $35, one can subscribe to CPBL TV (here’s a step-by-step guide in case you’re intimidated by the language barrier). The 10-team KBO began streaming intrasquad exhibitions on YouTube on March 23 — a Lotte Giants intrasquad game featuring former major leaguers Dan Straily and Adrian Sampson starting for the opposing teams — after its exhibition season was postponed. Naver, one of their internet portals, will stream KBO games domestically but right now no agreement for overseas has been announced, though ESPN has approached the league about airing games in the U.S.

Earlier this week, in an effort to give myself a crash course in the KBO — beyond its epic bat flips, of course — and then share it with our audience, I conducted email interviews with three team employees, two of whom will be familiar to FanGraphs readers. Both Josh Herzenberg and Sung Min Kim wrote for this site as recently as last year and now work for the Lotte Giants. Herzenberg, who spent time in the Dodgers’ amateur scouting and player development departments before contributing to FanGraphs, was hired this past winter to be the team’s pitching coordinator and quality control coach, while Kim, a South Korea native who grew up in the States, graduated from the University of Maryland in 2015, and wrote for River Avenue Blues, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and FanGraphs before being hired into the Giants’ R&D department last fall; while at FanGraphs, he documented the experiences of foreign-born KBO playersas well as the fan culture, the de-juiced baseball, and more. The third participant was Aaron Tassano, an Arizona-based international scout for the Samsung Lions who lived in South Korea for about eight years and previously worked for the Cubs, Rays, and Astros. All three were generous with their time in answering my questions.

To Tassano, the current MLB outage represents “a unique opportunity to put the Korean interpretation of the game on an international stage. On a larger scale, it shines a very positive light on South Korea as a whole and begs the question how it, along with Taiwan and the CPBL, arrived at this point in its fight with the coronavirus that both countries can open their professional baseball seasons in April and May. To say it’s a testimony to both countries would be an understatement.”

Taiwan, a country of about 23 million, has fewer than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with just six deaths according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard. As of April 14, no new cases had been reported in the previous 24 hours, for the first time since March 9. South Korea, a country of about 51 million, has just over 10,000 confirmed cases and 230 deaths. By comparison, the count of confirmed cases in the United States, with its population of 328 million, is now above 670,000, and the death toll above 33,000, including over 11,000 in New York City alone.

In a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, co-author Jason Wang, a Taiwanese doctor and associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medicine, wrote, “Taiwan’s government learned from its 2003 SARS experience and established a public health response mechanism for enabling rapid actions for the next crisis. Well-trained and experienced teams of officials were quick to recognize the crisis and activated emergency management structures to address the emerging outbreak.” Among 124 measures enacted by Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen were increased production of surgical and N95 face masks, island-wide testing and re-testing, and punishments for the spread of disinformation.

Similarly, South Korea was able to flatten the curve through quick intervention, widespread testing, aggressive contact tracing, isolation, and surveillance, the last at a level that likely would not be deemed acceptable in the U.S. Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Alden Gonzalez, “When someone tests positive, the government is authorized to scrape cellphone and banking data to get a full accounting of potentially at-risk locations. Text and social media blasts sent to large swaths of the population include the times, dates and locations of potential infection points.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times recently documented a six-week period between the identification of the first COVID-19 case in the US and the point when President Donald Trump and his administration took aggressive action to confront the outbreak. According to epidemiologists Britta L. Jewell and Nicholas P. Jewell, even a two-week difference mandating social distancing measures could have prevented 90% of the cumulative deaths attributed to the outbreak in the U.S. For however important the return of sports such as baseball may be, in both an economic and a symbolic sense, it simply can’t happen until widespread testing and other measures reduce the risks to those involved.

“I wish [the focus on the KBO] happened in a better worldwide circumstance… because of what’s going on, I can’t really be happy,” wrote Kim, who hopes that the league can work out something that will enable worldwide audiences to see the league’s games.

The KBO’s regular season was originally scheduled to open on March 28, but on February 27, the pandemic forced the league to postpone its exhibition season. Kim, who moved to Busan — a city of 3.4 million which was hit by the outbreak relatively later than other South Korean cities — in the fall and strictly adhered to governmental guidelines, has not gotten sick, nor has he been tested because he felt no symptoms. His story echoes those of many Americans dealing with the outbreak. He stocked up on food, toiletries and other necessities through an app called Coupang, though its delivery system was sometimes overwhelmed. As with the U.S., masks were hard to come by. “Masks (especially the KF-80, KF-94 ones) were the big things. It was basically impossible to order them online or find them at convenience stores,” he wrote. “People were lining up for a long time in front of pharmacies and grocery stores just to have their share of masks for a day.”

Hand sanitizer was scarce, too. “I got lucky because I actually had several bottles before the outbreak (I like getting my hands clean, a bit neurotic),” he admitted. Once Kim was able to return to work at the Giants’ ballpark, Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium, he — and everybody else entering — was screened by security using body heat detectors. Had he experienced a fever, he would have been sent to one of the city’s widely-available testing sites.

Herzenberg came to Busan to help the team ramp up its minor league camp on February 15, that after spending time at the team’s training camp in Adelaide, South Australia in late January. “When we first arrived, precautions were being put in place by the government, but nothing had been shut down en masse yet,” he wrote. “Shortly thereafter – perhaps a week later – governmental regulations began coming and many stores, restaurants, and shops were closed.”

Like Kim, Herzenberg lives alone, has not gotten sick, and has not been tested for the virus. He’s near both the team’s ballpark and a Target-like store called HomePlus; for him, obtaining supplies wasn’t a problem. Both men have attended the Giants’ intrasquad scrimmages. “Watching a baseball game in a stadium with tens of thousands of empty seats is certainly a weird experience, especially given how raucous and lively Lotte Giants fans typically are,” wrote Herzenberg. “It is odd to hear the echo of the crack of the bat or to hear the chatter in the infield without any noise behind it.”

Likewise, Kim has found that the empty ballparks remove some of the KBO’s signature quirks. “It is still fun to watch professional athletes go at it regardless of the circumstance. But I do miss a big aspect that makes KBO such a unique and fun experience – the crowd,” he wrote. “As much as a baseball-specific person I am, I also do really enjoy the fan culture here. The cheer songs, the routines, and all that. Sometimes during the offseason, I watch videos of our fans singing cheer songs on YouTube to nurse my boredom.”

Founded in 1982, the KBO has served both as a launching pad for Korean players who have since come stateside, such as Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jung Ho Kang, and Seunghwan Oh, and for U.S.- and Latin America-born players looking for an overseas alternative to further their careers, with some, such as Eric Thames, Merrill Kelly, Josh Lindblom, and everybody’s favorite left-handed knuckleballer, Ryan Feierabend, making it back to the majors. Several Korean players who bypassed the league to come stateside have gone home to finish their careers in the KBO, from the trailblazing Chan Ho Park to Byung-Hyun Kim and Hee-Seop Choi.

A quick perusal of last year’s league leaderboards provides an opportunity to Remember Some Guys; league home run leader ByungHo Park spent part of 2016 with the Twins, while the second-ranked Jamie Romak and the fourth-ranked Jerry Sands both bounced around the majors briefly, and the fifth-ranked Mel Rojas Jr. is of course the son of the longtime reliever. Darin Ruf, fifth in the league in RBIs, spent parts of five seasons with the Phillies. Other semi-familiar names include those of Carlos Asuaje, Christian Bethancourt, Jose Miguel Fernandez, Tommy Joseph, Casey Kelly, Warwick Saupold, and Jacob Turner. League rules limit teams to three foreign-born players, and salaries for their first season are now capped at $1 million U.S., though signing bonuses, incentives, and options provide some wiggle room. Still, the maximum base salary for those first-year foreign players is less than double the major league minimum salary ($563,500), though it’s a king’s ransom when compared to the salary of a Triple-A player.

Speaking of league rules, the 10 teams play each other 16 times apiece in a 144-game season, and the designated hitter is universal. Official ties are called for regular season games after 12 innings, and postseason games after 15 innings; the latter are replayed in full, so a best-of-five series could in theory have more than five games. More on the playoffs below.

The league’s 10 teams are spread out over eight cities, with Seoul, the country’s capital and largest city (about 9.7 million) playing host to three, including two (the LG Twins and Doosan Bears) who share the same ballpark, Jamsil Baseball Stadium. The teams are named not after their respective cities but after the companies or business conglomerates that own them or, in the case of the current Kiwoom Heroes, bought their naming rights. Here’s a quick look at the final 2019 standings, along with a bit of history:

2019 Korea Baseball Organization Standings
Team City W L T Pct. GB Champs Most Recent
Doosan Bears Seoul 88 55 1 .615 6 2019
SK Wyverns Incheon 88 55 1 .616 0.5 4 2018
Kiwoom Heroes Seoul 86 57 1 .601 2 0
LG Twins Seoul 79 64 1 .559 8.5 2 1994
NC Dinos Changwon 73 69 2 .514 14.5 0
KT Wiz Suwon 71 71 2 .500 16.5 0
Kia Tigers Gwangju 62 80 2 .437 25.5 11 2017
Samsung Lions Daegu 60 83 1 .420 28 8 2014
Hanwha Eagles Daejeon 58 86 0 .394 31 1 1999
Lotte Giants Busan 48 93 0 .346 36.5 2 1992
SOURCE: koreabaseball.com

The top five teams qualify for the KBO’s postseason, which uses a “step-ladder” system. The first place team gets a bye all the way to the finals, the Korean Series. The fifth- and fourth-place teams square off in a Wild Card round, where the fourth-place team starts with a 1-0 series lead, and advances with a win or a tie; the fifth-place team must win twice to advance. That winner plays the third-place team in the best-of-five Semi-Playoffs, with the winner of that moving on to face the second-place team in the best-of-five KBO Playoffs, and then that winner advances to play the top-seeded team in a best-of-seven.

In 2019, the fourth-place Twins beat the Dinos in the Wild Card game, but fell to the third-place Heroes, three games to one. The Heroes then upset the defending champion Wyverns, sweeping them in a rematch of the 2018 finals, but they were then swept by the Bears, who won their third championship in five years; they’ve been to the Korean Series five straight times. As Kim and Tassano both pointed out, three of the past five first-place finishers have won the Korean Series, two via sweeps, suggesting that they’re not losing their edge while waiting the three weeks it takes for the other rounds to play out.

Stylistically, the KBO is “refreshingly old school,” as Tassano put it. “Starting pitchers are expected to control the tempo, let their defense work behind them, pitch deep into games and earn wins. Hitters are expected to get runners over and knock them in. The league de-juicied its ball prior to last year, which made for a much lower scoring run environment. Hitters stopped trying to launch everything and there were a lot of three hour games with 4-3, 3-2 scores.”

As Herzenberg noted, KBO pitchers tend to throw more sinkers and splitters than their MLB counterparts, and the league features more sidearmers. “Small ball” is more prevalent, with stolen bases and sacrifice hits far more frequent. Hitters take a more spray-oriented approach, and strike out less often.

(On the subject of sidearmers — or rather submariners — check out Kim’s 2019 profile of the Wyverns’ Park Jong-Hoon, “as true a submarine pitcher as one could be.”)

Analytics has gotten a foothold in the KBO in recent years. Every team except for the Tigers has Trackman installed at their ballpark, and portable Rapsodo units are fairly common. “As is the case with MLB it varies team to team and some embrace new concepts more quickly than others,” wrote Tassano. “As a whole I’d say Koreans are quick to adapt to technology so incorporating it into the game isn’t met with the sort of resistance you might see in baseball culture [in the States]. Things like PITCHf/x and Trackman info have always shown up quickly on broadcasts and I’ve been a little surprised how frequently it’s integrated into our process.”

Tassano noted that the Lions’ new general manager, Huh Sam-young, is a former player who was hired from the data/analytics department, but has no on-field coaching experience, “maybe akin to Dan Haren or Brian Bannister going from their current role to a managing job.” Haren is now the Diamondbacks’ pitching strategist, Bannister the Giants’ director of pitching.

“Stuff like exit velo, launch angle, spin rate, etc. have become commonplace not only in front office baseball talks but also in the Korean media,” wrote Kim. “The thing about Korea is that, while we may give an impression of ‘catching up’ to things they do in the United States, the country has made unprecedented strides in being one of the poorest countries of the world to one of the richest. The KBO, which only started 38 years ago, does not have the historical depth compared to the MLB and NPB, but it’s made significant enough strides that we have major league-caliber talents playing in this league every day – and many others have clearly noticed. I believe that would carry on the same in terms of baseball analytics and smarts.”

For fans looking to learn more about the league, the official KBO site does have an English-language version. MyKBO is generally considered the top unofficial resource, offering stats and schedules as well as aggregated links to news. The Statiz site, when run through Google’s translation, offers advanced statistics including wOBA, wRC+ and WAR, though some of its categories can get garbled; “theft” is easy enough to decipher, but “steersman” (at-bats, apparently) is rather inscrutable except when it’s next to the slightly larger numbers for “Turn at bat” (plate appearances). Baseball-Reference has KBO stats, albeit in minor league form (no WAR, OPS+, ERA+ or splits), and the 2019 season appears to be missing a chunk of games for three teams. Tassano mentioned a Reddit KBO page; there it appears one might find information about how to stream outside the country (my observation, not his). Tassano also recommended reporters Jeeho Yoo of Yonhap and Daniel Kim of DKTV, both active on Twitter; the latter, who served as the interpreter for former Mets pitcher Jae Seo, was recently interviewed by Newsday’s David Lennon as well as Toronto’s SportsNet Tonight.

When the exhibition season was postponed by the outbreak, some KBO teams sent their foreign-born players home to be with their families. When they came back, however, they had to be quarantined for two weeks. “If you got caught outside, there was a chance you could be deported. Wouldn’t be good,” former Phillies pitcher Ben Lively told NBC Philadelphia. Lively spent parts of last season in the Royals and Diamondbacks’ organizations before joining the Lions. He’s one of several foreign-born players with recent quarantine stories documented by English-language media; here’s one about Tyler Saladino, and one about the LG Twins’ imports, infielder Roberto Ramos and pitchers Casey Kelly and Tyler Wilson.

Inevitably, it’s through the eyes of those English-speaking players, as well as other figures with stateside connections such as the ones interviewed for this article, that many of us tuning into the KBO for the first time will get a feel for how things are working out as the league attempts to move forward with its season.

About which, as it’s currently planned, the hope is still to play a 144-game season for each team, with the possibility of using the league’s only domed ballpark, the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul — home of the Heroes, and site of first-round games in the 2017 World Baseball Classic — for a neutral-site playoff. To do that, they’ll have to get through a slate of six exhibition games per team, with nobody getting sick. As Straily told ESPN, “If anybody, anybody — if the No. 1 starting pitcher to the person cleaning, security, R&D — anybody gets sick in that time, we postpone two weeks. We’ve got to make sure that no one else got sick.” Via Daniel Kim, all players will be checked for fever twice a day. They won’t be required to wear face masks, but all non-uniform personnel, including umpires and trainers, will when in the stadiums, with gloves as well. Kim told Lennon that the league already has a playbook for the crisis, based upon a 2015 outbreak of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

If it sounds precarious, well, it certainly is. But right now, such measures represent the best hope for the KBO to get up and running, and MLB will be watching to see if any of the strategies and lessons learned there can be translated into a stateside return for in 2020. So much of that, starting with the widespread availability of tests here in the U.S., is beyond the control of the league, so in the meantime, those of us who need our fix of baseball have to figure out how to check in on games that are geographically half a world away, and conceptually might feel even further beyond our reach.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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4 years ago

Is there anyway to play fantasy KBO? I know im not the only one with the itch