Keeping Up With the KBO: April, Part One

Last year, the arrival of the KBO was a breath of fresh air for our despondent, quarantined, and baseball-deprived selves. Between May and July, the entire baseball community became invested in a league that is in many ways different from MLB. There’s greater emphasis on contact hitting and baserunning, which recalled another, perhaps nostalgic, era of major league baseball for some. Sure, the defense and pitching could be clunky at times, but we embraced them as fun idiosyncrasies. And though baseball and a semblance of normalcy has returned stateside, there are still plenty of fans who want to monitor the KBO.

That’s why I’ve decided to start a monthly column that acts as a periodic check-in on the KBO. This isn’t, say, a power ranking, but rather an overview of which developments I find interesting. Today’s Part One will discuss league-wide trends and include updates on the Samsung Lions, KT Wiz, LG Twins, and SSG Landers. Part Two, which I hope to get published on Monday, will deal with the six remaining teams. Also, don’t forget to check out our expanded KBO stats offering as the season progresses! So without further ado, let’s begin!

Standings

KBO Standings, 5/7/21
Team W-L (pct.) Games Behind
Samsung Lions 18-11 (.621) 0.0
KT Wiz 15-12 (.556) 2.0
LG Twins 15-12 (.556) 2.0
SSG Landers 14-13 (.519) 3.0
NC Dinos 13-14 (.481) 4.0
Doosan Bears 13-14 (.481) 4.0
Kia Tigers 13-14 (.481) 4.0
Kiwoom Heroes 13-15 (.464) 4.5
Hanwha Eagles 12-15 (.441) 5
Lotte Giants 11-17 (.393) 6.5
SOURCE: Naver Sports

League Trends

The standings are notably tight, even for April/early May

There’s only a difference of six-and-a-half games between the first place Samsung Lions and the last place Lotte Giants, which has made the KBO incredibly fun to watch. It’s been great, but it’s unusual, too. Last season, there was already a 16.5-game gap between first and last place at roughly the same point in the season. Examining the first 30-or-so games of recent KBO past, 2021 still stands out:

Most of this you can chalk up to April/early May weirdness – the NC Dinos aren’t going to remain a .500 team for long, for example – but I wonder if there are new factors to consider that weren’t relevant before. Pitchers are walking hitters at unprecedented rates so far, a trend that’s stolen seemingly easy victories for teams. This is based on my own observations, and not actual data (WPA is a luxury I don’t have), so maybe I’m off-base here. We’ll just have to wait and see how the pennant race unfolds in May and beyond.

Walk rates are spiraling out of control

What did I mean by unprecedented? See for yourself:

Just like that, there’s now a whole additional walk per game. I’ve only looked at recent years, but according to an article from Sports Seoul, this is the first time in the league’s 40-year history that its BB/9 has soared above the 4.50 mark. There have been a few potential explanations, ranging from poor league-wide command of breaking and off-speed pitches to the obscure walk effect, but no clear answer has emerged.

But the most likely reason is also the simplest. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Spring Training began (a) two weeks later than usual, and (b) in Korea, not the warmer countries teams used to enjoy. It’s understandable that pitchers aren’t fully warmed up at this point. Besides, walks tend to peak early on in the season before trending down. Pitchers were issuing 4.29 walks per nine innings 77 games into the 2015 season, but that rate decreased to 3.70 by season’s end. I want to check back in during the summer months and see where this has settled.

Team Notes

Samsung Lions

The team in first place is… the Samsung Lions? There’s only been about a month of baseball, but still, this is quite the surprise. For context, the Lions crawled to last season’s finish line with a mediocre record of 64-75. They did make a few moves during the offseason, such as signing free agent slugger Jae-il Oh 오재일 to a four-year deal and retaining two of their own free agents, but none of them were expected to drastically move the needle.

The Lions, however, did bring in Jose Pirela as their foreign slugger. So far, that’s been a wise decision: His .349/.391/.641 line, good for a 165 wRC+, is by far the team’s highest mark. Also fueling the Lions’ success is the emergence of rookie pitcher Tae-in Won 원태인, who has maintained a 1.18 ERA through six starts while striking out more than a batter per inning. Combine these two breakout performances with the continued excellence of the regulars, and you get a plausible explanation for why the Lions have taken the league by storm.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Pirela and Won will maintain their current pace, but whatever – the Lions are fun to watch right now. As long as there’s a semblance of consistency, an eventual Wild Card berth isn’t out of reach.

KT Wiz

The Wiz are trailing the Lions, but they actually have the best run differential in the league. The departure of Mel Rojas Jr. 로하스 and his perennial 6 to 7 WAR offensive production hasn’t been missed too much, largely thanks to a possibly even better Baek-ho Kang 강백호, a solid start from Zoilo Almonte 알몬테, Rojas’ replacement, and other above-average regulars. One sour note: Jae-Gyun Hwang 황재균 is on the Injured List, and his absence will be felt.

On the pitching side, team ace Odrisamer Despaigne 데스파이네 has put up a respectable 2.15 ERA in 37.2 innings, though his 3.54 FIP may hint that his run average isn’t representative of how he’s been pitching. Last season’s Rookie of the Year winner Hyeong Jun So 소형준 has taken a step back, but the rest of the rotation and bullpen has been solid overall. As our Brendan Gawlowski noted in his KBO preview, The Wiz are an exception due to their quality pitching depth, and it has been an asset so far in a league whose pitchers have been lacking control. This is no doubt a solid team, and fans of the Wiz have much to hope for.

LG Twins

Heading into the 2021 season, the Twins were viewed as one of the league’s strongest teams, likely to battle the NC Dinos for the first place crown. While there’s not much to criticize here, the bats are still a bit cold: Roberto Ramos 라모스 is off to a sluggish start, hitting just .213/.295/.351. His GB% is down and his HardHit% is up from last season, so maybe this is nothing to fret over.

But a possible explanation is that Ramos is losing a few hits due to the infield shift. While BABIP for right-handed batters has hardly changed, it’s the lowest since the 2012 season for left-handed batters. This could be an instance of correlation not equaling causation, but it’s clear that teams are shifting specifically against Ramos. Here’s an example of one, courtesy of MBC Sports Plus:

With a 38.8% HR/FB rate in his 38-homer debut season, some regression towards his actual talent level was inevitable, but he’s also not a 77 wRC+ guy. Shift or no shift, expect Ramos to bounce back.

Andrew Suárez and Casey Kelly 켈리 are the strongest one-two pitching punch in the league, but the Twins’ rotation afterwards is bare. And with rookie Min-ho Lee이민호 on the IL, there are and will be questions about who can eat innings on any given day. The bullpen has luckily been stellar, holding opponents to a second-best 3.75 ERA over 110.1 innings. Overall, there’s not too much to worry about this team, so rest assured.

SSG Landers

This is, wait, what do the kids say? Right, sus. This is a team that has a worse run differential than the ninth and 10th place teams, yet is somehow in possession of fourth place. I don’t buy it. The Landers’ collective FIP of 4.88 is the second-worst in the league, while their wRC+ of 96 is the fourth-worst. Their win-loss record is inflated by several one-or-two run victories, and they’ve also coughed up 10 or more runs on five occasions – twice against the Hanwha Eagles.

What I do buy, however, that this is a better team than last year. While Shin-Soo Choo 추신수 isn’t blowing us away, he’s still a significant upgrade over the ragtag group of designated hitters that accumulated an abysmal -0.3 offensive WAR in 2020. The same goes for new foreign pitchers Artie Lewicki and Wilmer Font 폰트 – they aren’t amazing, but their average-ish FIPs have kept the team afloat.

Also, remember Jong-hun Park 박종훈, the submarine pitcher who received tons of love from the Pitching Ninja account? He’s off to a great start, with a 3.35 FIP and a pristine groundball rate of 73.2%. Watching his meticulous approach is top-notch entertainment. Regardless, the Landers still seem like a seventh- or eighth-place team, maybe sixth at best.

Part Two to come!





Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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Great stuff, Justin. If the Lions can get any help from any hitter other than their big three (Pirela, Ja Wook Koo and Min Ho Kang), they’d look like a legitimate contender to me. Once Chae Heung Choi gets back, they have what has to be the best group of top four starters in the league, right? Assuming most of what we’re seeing from Tae In Won is real, of course.