KBO’s Wyverns Fail to Take Flight

If the NC Dinos are the Korea Baseball Organization’s hottest team — and at 12-2, with a three-game lead over the second-place LG Twins, that’s the case — then the SK Wyverns are its coldest. Through Friday, they’ve gone 2-12, a skid that includes a 10-game losing streak, one game shy of the longest in franchise history.

Based in Incheon, South Korea’s third-largest city after Seoul and Busan, the Wyverns — those are two-legged dragons, in case you’ve forgotten — have been particularly successful in the past couple of years, finishing second in the regular season standings twice in a row. After going 78-65-1 in 2018 under former major league manager Trey Hillman, they beat the Nexen (now Kiwoom) Heroes three games to two in the best-of-five Playoff Series, then beat the Doosan Bears four games to two in the best-of-seven Korean Series for their first championship since 2010 and fourth since joining the league in 2000. Last year, they went 88-55-1 but finished tied with the Bears, that after holding a 7 1/2-game advantage over them as late as August 24. Since the Bears held a 9-7 advantage in head-to-head competition, they won first place and automatically advanced to the Korean Series, while the Wyverns suffered a three-game sweep at the hands of the Heroes in the Semi-Playoff Series.

Per Dan Szymborski’s rough KBO projections, the Wyverns were forecast to be the league’s third-best team behind the Heroes and Bears, with a 17.0% chance of finishing first and an 83.3% chance of making the playoffs. Instead, after splitting their first two games against the Hanhwa Eagles, they lost 10 straight: the series rubber match against the Eagles, then two to the Lotte Giants and three to the LG Twins (both on the road), three to the Dinos at home, and the series opener agains the Heroes in Seoul. They finally got off the schneid by beating the Heroes on Wednesday, 5-3, then lost to them again on Thursday, a game in which they blew a 5-0 lead and suffered this final indignity, a walk-off infield single that deflected off shortstop Sung-hyun Kim 김성현.

Ouch. In Friday’s 2-1 loss to the KIA Tigers, the go-ahead run scored via a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch.

Even without knowing of such gaffes, it’s not hard to see how the Wyverns find themselves in the basement. They’ve scored the fewest runs per game of any team (3.79) and allowed the second-most (6.71), a recipe for misery in any flavor of baseball. Their -41 run differential is nearly double that of the ninth-ranked Samsung Lions (-21, with a 5-10 record); by Pythagenpat, their .246 winning percentage is well below the Lions’ .366.

The Wyverns were the league’s stingiest team in terms of run prevention last year (3.79), but this winter, they shed three top starters, all of whom left the country. Ace Kwang Hyun Kim 김광현, who ranked third in the league in innings (190.1), ERA (2.51), and WAR (6.4, all advanced stats via Statiz) signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Cardinals. Number two starter Angel Sanchez, who was fourth in WAR (5.9) and fifth in ERA (2.62), departed for the NPB’s Yomiuri Giants. Midseason addition Henry Sosa 소사, who arrived from the Fubon Guardians of the CPBL and pitched in 1.9 WAR in 94.1 innings, returned from whence he came (he’s been rocked for a 6.83 ERA with the Guardians thus far). Still on hand are righties Jong-hun Park 박종훈 and Seung-won Moon 문승원 as the top returnees; both posted 3.88 ERAs but gaudier FIPs (4.60 and 4.83, respectively), and combined for 5.0 WAR.

It’s bad enough the Wyverns lost their top starters from 2019, but to add both insult and injury to the equation, their two foreign-born arrivals, righties Nick Kingham and Ricardo Pinto, have both pitched poorly in the early going. Kingham, a 28-year-old former Pirates prospect, was cuffed for a 6.75 ERA and 4.88 FIP in his two turns before elbow issues (getting specifics on KBO injuries thus far has been a challenge) landed him on the injured list; he’s expected to miss at least two more turns. Pinto, a 26-year-old ex-Phillie and Ray, has been similarly bad by the numbers (6.32 ERA, 4.74 FIP), with the added indignity of walking more hitters than he’s struck out (10 to eight) in his 15.2 innings.

Indeed, in a league where the foreign-born starters thus far have pitched to a 3.91 ERA and 3.90 FIP, the Wyverns’ pair are second-to-last in both categories:

KBO Foreign-Born Starter Tandems in 2020
Team Starters IP ERA FIP
Hanwha Eagles Warwick Saupold 서폴드 22.0 1.64 3.10
Kiwoom Heroes Jake Brigham 브리검, Eric Jokisch 요키시 30.0 2.10 3.69
NC Dinos Drew Rucinski 루친스키, Mike Wright 라이트 33.1 2.70 4.71
Doosan Bears Raul Alcantara, Chris Flexen 38.0 3.32 3.53
Kia Tigers Aaron Brooks, Drew Gagnon 가뇽 34.1 3.41 2.18
Lotte Giants Dan Straily 스트레일리 22.0 3.68 3.96
KT Wiz William Cuevas 쿠에바스, Odrisamer Despaigne 데스파이네 34.1 4.19 2.91
LG Twins Casey Kelly 켈리, Tyler Wilson윌슨 25.1 5.68 4.13
SK Wyverns Nick Kingham 킹엄, Ricardo Pinto 26.1 6.49 4.72
Samsung Lions David Buchanan, Ben Lively 라이블리 31.0 6.68 6.34
SOURCE: MyKBOStats.com
Statistics through May 22. Hanhwa’s Chad Bell채드벨 and Lotte’s Adrian Sampson have yet to pitch due to injuries

While the rotation’s ERA is an unsightly 5.16, the bullpen’s ERA is worse, at 7.12 (alas, Statiz’s team-level starter/reliever splits don’t offer FIP). Closer Jae-Hoon Ha 하재훈, who spent 2009-14 in the Cubs’ chain as an outfielder, led the KBO with 36 saves last year while striking out 9.8 per nine and posting a 1.98 ERA; he’s thrown a grand total of four innings thus far, and has one save. Setup man Jin-yong Seo 서진용, who delivered a 2.38 ERA in 68 innings last year while striking out 10.1 per nine (second in the league), has allowed seven runs in eight innings. So that’s not going well.

Neither is an offense that last year ranked fourth in scoring at 4.55 runs per game. Aside from right fielder Dong-min Han 한동민, who’s hit a searing .347/.404/.776 (186 wRC+) and is tied with the LG Twins’ Roberto Ramos for the league lead in homers (six), and first baseman Jamie Romak 로맥, who’s hitting a modest .283/.333/.472 (109 wRC+), none of their regulars are providing even league-average offense. To be fair, Han’s performance is an encouraging one, given that he dropped from 41 homers and a.601 slugging percentage (not to mention Korean Series MVP honors) in 2018 to 12 homers and a .396 slugging percentage last year amid the ball de-juicing, but he needs more support up and down the lineup.

The lineup’s biggest drag thus far has been third baseman Jeong Choi 최정, a 33-year-old switch-hitter who’s fifth on the league’s career home run list at 336, having led in 2017 (46) and tied Romak for second last year (29) while batting .292/.399/.519. Not only does he have just one homer thus far in 58 plate appearances, he’s “hitting” just .128/.293/.234 (50 wRC+). We don’t have any exit velo to offer even a tentative diagnosis, but his 24.1% strikeout rate is well above last year’s 15.1%, if not as high as his 2018 mark of 26.2%.

Not helping matters are the losses of catcher Jae-won Le and left fielder Jong-wook Ko 고종욱 due to injuries, both after playing just three games this year. Lee, whose 2.6 WAR ranked third on the team last year behind Choi (6.4) and Romak (4.1), fractured his right thumb on May 7 via a hit-by-pitch and does not yet have a timeline for return. Ko, a .323/.348/.421 hitter last year who rolled an ankle on May 14 and was expected to miss two weeks.

A couple other things stand out about the Wyverns. Per Baseball-Reference, their lineup’s age (weighted by plate appearances) last year was the oldest in the league at 30.8 years, 1.3 years older than the next-oldest team, the Bears. Of their seven players with the most plate appearances this year, five are over 30, as are the aforementioned injured pair (Lee’s 32, Ko 31). Even with the injuries, this year’s average stands at 30.1. The middle infield was a sore spot for the Wyverns last year, with none of their various second basemen or shortstops managing even 0.5 WAR. The lineup’s youngest player, 19-year-old second baseman Chang-pyeong Kim 김창평 — who played just 18 games last year — has hit a meager .220/.347/.317, and while he’s tied for the league lead in steals, a couple of his defensive miscues figured prominently in the six-run first-inning that sent the team to its 10th straight loss on Wednesday. The shortstop job, which has been split between the aforementioned Sung-hyun Kim, who’s 33, and Hyun Chung, who’s 25, hasn’t provided much offense either.

While there’s always a danger in reading too much into any 14-game stretch — everything here is a small-sample size, and often with far less supporting data than we’re accustomed to having with respect to MLB players — the Wyverns’ rotation turnover, injuries, and advancing age all offer reasons for concern. They’ve got their work cut out to get their 2020 season off the ground.

We hoped you liked reading KBO’s Wyverns Fail to Take Flight by Jay Jaffe!

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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.

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Matthew Babin
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Matthew Babin

So…oldest roster, struggling bullpen, horrible start. As a Nats fan I feel like I picked the right team to adopt! Let’s see where this bumpy road goes…

Ryan DC
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Ryan DC

Haha wow that’s a great point, I might have to join you on this rickety bandwagon