Keeping Up With the KBO: April, Part Two

This is Part Two of the April edition of my monthly column, in which I recap what’s been going on in the Korean Baseball Organization on both a league- and team-wide scale. In case you missed it, Part One provided a brief introduction to this column, discussed league-wide trends, then covered the Samsung Lions, LG Twins, KT Wiz, and SSG Landers. Today’s post will cover the remaining six teams. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them as comments or reach out to me via Twitter. Without further ado, let’s talk some KBO!

Team Notes

Doosan Bears

The offseason was not kind to the Doosan Bears. Pitchers Chris Flexen and Raúl Alcántara both had phenomenal years, but were whisked away by foreign leagues. They also lost multiple regulars to free agency, including first baseman Jae-il Oh 오재일 and second baseman Joo-hwan Choi 최주환, both formidable hitters.

That doesn’t mean the Bears are no longer a playoff-caliber team – there’s still an abundance of talent on the roster, but there’s no guarantee this time around. At least replacement signee Walker Lockett has averaged six innings per start with a 3.54 FIP, but Aríel Miranda 미란다 seems like a disaster waiting to happen. His 36 strikeouts in 28.1 innings don’t look as impressive when you consider that (a) they’re spread across six starts, and (b) he also has 22 walks, six of them issued in a single outing. There’s upside, but unless Miranda finds the zone, the Bears will have a headache to deal with.

I’m also not sure why the club traded Deok-ju Ham 함덕주 for a below-average first baseman and a pitching prospect. Oh’s absence needs to be addressed, sure, but Ham’s ability to handle multi-inning relief appearances and occasionally start is arguably a greater boon to a team whose depth is not the greatest. To be fair, the Bears currently have the best bullpen in the league by WAR, and the rotation is fourth-best by ERA. If all else fails, the bats will keep the team afloat, but I’m still a bit more skeptical than I am optimistic.

NC Dinos

I absolutely love the Dinos’ offense. The 2020 Korean Series champions recorded the eighth-highest wOBA in KBO history back then, with no signs of slowing down so far. For your reading pleasure, I’ve compiled the triple-slash lines of their hottest hitters this season:

Aaron Altherr 알테어: .336/.402/.690
Euiji Yang 양의지: .337/.445/.612
Sok Min Park 박민: .339/.409/.712

Awesome. So why is the team barely above .500? The Dinos have scored a league-leading 179 runs, but they’ve also given up 156. Chang-mo Koo 구창모, who blossomed into an ace last year by relying more on his split-fingered fastball, is still recovering from a left forearm inflammation. New foreign pitcher Wes Parsons started the season on the Injured List and hasn’t been impressive since. Fourth and fifth starters Myung-gi Song 송명기 and Jae-hak Lee 이재학 are – you guessed it – also injured. Not so awesome!

It’s Drew Rucinski 루친스키 who has prevented the pitching from becoming a disaster. His ERA is on the higher side, but a career-best 15.3% SwStr% might be a sign of better days ahead. Best of all, emergency starter Min-hyeok Shin 신민혁 is likely to become a fixture of the rotation after strong performances against the Lions (6 IP, 0 ER) and the Wiz (5.2 IP, 1 ER). The Dinos have stumbled early on in the season, but I don’t foresee any long-term problems. This is still the best team in the KBO.

Kiwoom Heroes

The Heroes once tumbled to last place, but they’re on pace to recover and gradually climb up the ranks. After reaching a minimum of .200/.333/.300 during his fifth game of the season, outfielder Jung-hoo Lee 이정후 is now hitting .314/.410/.449 for a 132 wRC+. He’s yet to hit a home run, however, so I’ll be monitoring whether his power surge in 2020 was a mirage or a major step forward.

ByungHo Park 박병호 was sent down to the KBO equivalent of the minor leagues after a miserable start, so it’s great news that he’s been thriving there, rocking a .370 average with a homer to boot. And additional help is on the way. The Heroes are currently dead-last in Pitching WAR, but don’t let that mislead you – they released right-hander Josh Smith on April 15th (for some reason) and re-signed Jake Brigham 브리검 from the CPBL. Until he’s passed through quarantine, the team is without a second starter. Closer Sang-woo Cho 조상우 appears a mess (7.24 FIP), but note that he started the season on the IL and may be dealing with the lingering effects of his injury. Look for him to rebound.

Lastly, keep your eye on the progress of Woo-jin Ahn. FanGraphs alumnus Sung Min Kim contributed a detailed profile on the righty, in which Ahn flashes a fastball that sits 94-96 mph with a spin rate of 2400-2600 rpm – the latter is elite by major league standards. He also possesses a sharp slider. Issues with commanding both have held him back from dominance, but when he puts everything together? There’s a prospect you can’t ignore.

KIA Tigers

Few words are required to describe the state of the Tigers’ offense. All you need is one tweet:

Since then, the team has improved to… nine home runs. Four of them were clobbered by veteran Hyoung-woo Choi 최형우, which is more an indication of just how power-starved everyone else is than a celebratory fact. Preston Tucker 터커, who launched 32 in his 2020 season, has just two. Ji-wan Na 나지완, with 17 the same year, has zero. The other regulars were expected to lack power, so no surprise there. I’m not familiar with the Tigers’ farm system, but I hope some talented bats are on their way. Choi and Na are 37 and 36, respectively, and Tucker isn’t going to stick around forever.

On the bright side, the Tigers do have rookie southpaw Eui-lee Lee, who flashed his potential on April 28 by striking out 10 batters with one walk over six frames, albeit against the feeble Hanwha Eagles. Daniel Mengden is looking like a successful import, and despite a rocky start to the season, Aaron Brooks is back to his efficient, grounder-inducing self with a 2.87 FIP. The Tigers finished with a 73-71 record in 2020. They could tack on a couple of wins, but nothing in April and early May has suggested that they’ve taken the next step.

Hanwha Eagles

Make no mistake – the Eagles are bad. But what’s notable about this year is that the team is finally committed to a rebuild. It’s long overdue, as previous seasons were marred by an over-reliance on declining veterans and a failure to develop prospects.

Under a new general manager, the Eagles have hired Carlos Subero, former Brewers’ first base coach and manager for the Venezuelan national team, as a mentor figure for the organization’s up-and-coming players. The team may not even sniff a winning season during Subero’s tenure, but there are different goals in mind. In an interview for MBC Sports, the new skipper stressed the importance of instilling confidence and a desire to learn from failure:

“The way we play baseball here in Korea, it’s like we’re in a safety zone… and you know what, fail, but learn from it, and you can increase your potential. That freedom to fail, that conviction goes along with attention to detail.”

Already, there are glimpses of a better future. Third baseman Si-hwan Roh 노시환, a former fringe prospect, has suddenly unlocked a new level of power and plate discipline, leading the team in home runs (6) and slugging percentage (.533). Min-woo Kim 김민우 is emerging as a consistent, albeit league-average starter, but it matters that he’s homegrown, a concept that’s eluded the Eagles for years. In addition to his managerial philosophy, Subero has broken the KBO mold by implementing aggressive infield shifts. The Eagles have long been the butt of many jokes, but honestly, they’re one of the few teams that’s on the right track.

Lotte Giants

The Giants have a couple of things working for them. Their fourth-best team wRC+ is spread out across multiple hitters, which suggests sustainability, and hooray to Dae-Ho Lee 이대호’s aging curve not being as steep as some expected. Also, closer Won-jung Kim 김원중 has been lights out. A 2.25 FIP is backed up by the fact that his stuff, when it’s on, is a few standard deviations above the average KBO crop:

But that’s about where the positives end. I’m not going to worry about Dan Straily 스트레일리 – he’s technically struggling, but he wasn’t going to improve on his 2020 campaign. The rest of the rotation, though, I’d recommend you don’t show to children under the age of 13. Enderson Franco has been awful (5.46 ERA/4.90 FIP), his command often nonexistent. Poor Se-woong Park 박세웅 broke out in 2017 but has come undone due to injuries. Everyone else is about replacement level or lower.

It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows on the hitting side, either. Ah-seop Son 손아섭 has the lowest wRC+ of all qualified KBO hitters, yet continues to occupy the two-hole. Son has decent pop, but his groundball rate has risen to unacceptable levels this season:

Ah-seop Son’s Batted Ball Profile
Year LD% GB% FB%
2020 12.1% 65.9% 22.0%
2021 5.5% 78.0% 16.9%

Why not swap him for Dong-hui Han 한동희, their young third baseman with career-highs in ISO and BB%? Their manager is notorious for blindly trusting veterans over talented rookies and prospects, which goes against GM Min-kyu Sung’s goal of a semi-rebuild. This is more of a fundamental problem within the organization, and unless it’s resolved in the near future, the Giants may be stuck in baseball purgatory. They at least aren’t a last-place club. But I’m not sure by how much.





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 article. I appreciate its thoroughness.