Keeping Up With the KBO: June Edition

This is the June 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. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or reach out to me via Twitter. Also, don’t forget to check out our expanded KBO stats offering. Without further ado, let’s talk some KBO.

Standings

KBO Standings, 7/8/2021
Team W-L-T Pct. GB
KT Wiz 44-28-0 .611 0.0
LG Twins 43-32-0 .573 2.5
Samsung Lions 43-32-1 .573 2.5
SSG Landers 40-34-2 .541 5.0
Kiwoom Heroes 41-38-0 .519 6.5
NC Dinos 37-35-2 .514 7.0
Doosan Bears 36-38-0 .486 9.0
Lotte Giants 31-42-1 .425 13.5
Kia Tigers 29-43-0 .403 15.0
Hanwha Eagles 27-49-0 .355 19.0
SOURCE: Naver Sports

League Trends

Replacement Foreign Players

We’re midway through the season, which means most teams have passed their tolerance level for struggling foreign players and are willing to replace them. These signings are justified for the most part, but some of them can be questionable. As the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side. If you’re busy and just want to see who’s out the door and who’s coming in, here’s a full list:

The NC Dinos, Doosan Bears, Lotte Giants, and Kia Tigers have not elected to release and/or replace their foreign players as of this writing.

The Summer Olympics

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo take place this month, which means the KBO will be on hiatus from July 19 to August 9. Don’t be confused if there suddenly aren’t any KBO games. You can read more about the South Korean team here.

Team Notes

KT Wiz

Oh hey, the Wiz are in first! That’s not too surprising – Jae-Gyun Hwang 황재균 is back from the Injured List and mashing baseballs, right-handed control artist Young-pyo Ko is having a career season after two years of military service, and baseball prodigy Baek-ho Kang 강백호 is still hitting close to .400. This team is good, alright.

Meanwhile, they released Zoilo Almonte, who had put up a .272/.337/.406 slashline in 60 games. Those are lukewarm, not atrocious numbers, but the team understandably wanted to pull ahead in the standings with a big upgrade. So who’s the replacement? Why, it’s… Jared Hoying, who in his final KBO season posted a 48 wRC+. Huh.

Per press releases, KT is banking on Hoying’s prior success in the KBO and his defensive and baserunning prowess, two skills that Almonte lacked. I understand the thought process, but there’s significant risk in signing someone who played in just 43 professional games across the KBO, Triple-A, and MLB from 2020-21. He’s older, too, and presumably slower. There’s a lot that needs to go right to justify Hoying’s contract and the odds are not in the team’s favor. Maybe the team’s internal evaluations suggest otherwise, but still, this is a puzzling move.

LG Twins

The Twins are right where they need to be halfway through the season, as their offense and pitching have continued to excel. I said last month that it’s scary to think Chang-ki Hong 홍창기 had improved, and well, he’s upped his wRC+ to 163 after a hot month. Eun-seong Chae 채은성 continues to be the centerpiece of the lineup the team oh-so-needed after a hamstring injury limited Hyun Soo Kim 김현수’s output. Overall, Twins hitters still have the KBO’s highest walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Not much has changed on the pitching side, but there are two potential red flags. First, Woo-chan Cha 차우찬’s velocity dipped to a dangerous low of 83.6 mph last week against the Samsung Lions. It rebounded slightly in his next start but was still below the usual 86-87 mph range, so it’s something to monitor. Second, Min-ho Lee이민호 has been erratic in June, alternating between scoreless outings and four- or five-run ones. A demotion to the bullpen is possible, as the Twins will likely have the KBO’s second-best rotation even without Lee’s contributions.

Meanwhile, the team decided to part ways with Roberto Ramos and sign ex-Hanshin Tigers slugger Justin Bour in his place. It’s a bittersweet exit for Ramos, who had developed a genuine rapport with Korean fans, but such is the life of a mercenary. Bour profiles as a power-hitting lefty whose upside resembles that of his predecessor. This high-risk, high-reward signing is made more palatable by the breakout effort of Bo-gyeong Moon 문보경, who was called up to aid the ailing Ramos and has been raking ever since, hitting .270/.386/.489, good for a 140 wRC+. It’ll be interesting to see how the Twins will alternate between both hitters – it’s a luxury the team can afford.

Samsung Lions

After signing with the Lions early in June, Mike Montgomery made his long-awaited debut on July 4, striking out six Dinos hitters in four no-hit innings. Four walks prevented him from going the distance, however, and the Lions had already intended to pull him in the 70-80 pitch range. It was a solid, albeit disappointing performance.

I caught an inning or so of Montgomery’s debut, and I can’t say I’m impressed. His changeup is a genuine out pitch, inducing a fair number of swings and misses from the Changwon Bombers, but his other offerings looked average at best. At the very least, Montgomery’s ability to wield five pitches with decent command gives him a leg up in the KBO. It’s also safe to assume he’s not at a 100 percent yet – traveling to a foreign country and spending two weeks in quarantine must be wonderful – so I’m hesitant to draw any conclusions from one start.

Even if he isn’t lights out, Montgomery’s arrival should solidify the Lions’ rotation as the KBO’s best. The offense has been fine, but the team should seriously consider replacing their second baseman Sang-soo Kim 김상수 and his 50 wRC+. In a perfect world, the Lions coax the last-place Tigers into parting ways with Sun-bin Kim 김선빈 (.295/.370/.376, 102 wRC+), but it’s unusual in this league for teams to swap regulars mid-season. Regardless, I like where the Lions are at. The team’s unexpected rise to contention is just what Korean baseball needed.

SSG Landers

At this point, I’ve accepted the fact that the Landers might make the playoffs despite having a mediocre run differential all the way. No complaints from me this month. Instead, let’s focus on what they’ve been doing right. In the beginning of June, the confirmed exits of starters Jong-hun Park 박종훈, Seung-won Moon 문승원, and Artie Lewicki due to injury spelled doom for the team. It looked impossible to weather such a sudden storm.

And yet, the Landers persisted. The team’s emergency starters have pitched fairly well – most notable is the 20-year-old Won-seok Oh, who had a 3.55 ERA in June across five starts and isn’t even in our database. Key members of the bullpen like Min-ho Park 박민호 and Taek-hyeong Kim 김택형 remained prolific. And although Wilmer Font 폰트 isn’t producing monstrous strikeout totals like I hoped, his stuff is good enough that he’s delivered five or six innings on a consistent basis. On the offensive front, Jeong Choi 최정 continued his assault on the league, with other veterans such as Jamie Romak and Jae-won Lee이재원 as assistants. The Landers launched 42 home runs in June, besting even the Dinos’ total of 31.

Of course, the flip side of this near-miracle is that it doesn’t bode well for sustainability. Cracks have begun to emerge; the team is on a five-game losing skid as of this writing. But that shouldn’t discredit what the Landers managed to achieve in a turbulent month. They lost three starters in a span of weeks. Really.

Kiwoom Heroes

There were ups and downs, but the Heroes managed to stay afloat in the standings. First, the positives: Catcher Dong-won Park 박동원 has settled in nicely in the four hole with a career offensive season so far (.270/.336/.544, 147 wRC+), offsetting the continued struggles of ByungHo Park 박병호. We’re halfway into Woo-jin An 안우진’s first season as a full-time starter and he’s responded to adversity in April and May with the best month of his career: a 2.41 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 33.2 innings. He’s locating his breaking pitches for strikes; his velocity has remained steady. It’s encouraging stuff from the young righty.

On the flip side, the team released David Freitas after a miserable 43-game stint, during which he managed to hit just .259/.297/.374. The Heroes have yet to sign a replacement hitter, however, so perhaps they’ve decided to be deliberate in their search. It’s likely that the team signs another designated hitter type, as depth for that position is incredibly thin. Meanwhile, the Heroes will also have to deal with the extended slump of their everyday second baseman Geonchang Seo 서건창, but as long as they stay put, a Wild Card berth is more than possible.

NC Dinos

In earlier recaps, I blamed the pitching for the Dinos’ “slumps.” But over the course of the season, it’s also become clear that their offense isn’t going to match the incredible heights of last year’s. In hindsight, a lot of writers (including myself) overlooked just how historic the 2020 Dinos lineup was – it recorded the eighth-best wOBA in KBO history – and that some hitters would inevitably regress towards their career norms.

As a result, the team’s weaknesses are more glaring than before. For example, the Dinos have missed out on several close games due to their bullpen, which carried a league-worst 7.12 ERA in June. The Chang-mo Koo 구창모-sized void feels larger than ever, and what’s worse, reports of left forearm pain have more or less shut down his return. The Dinos may soon need to accept that his 2021 season is a goner. They did acquire fringe starter Jung-soo Park 박정수 from the Doosan Bears, but the team should ideally make a deal for a quality arm. With how much depth it has, that doesn’t seem like an impossible task. The Dinos are still first in runs scored, and they’re a fantastic baseball ensemble. It’s simply that the road to first place won’t be as smooth as before.

Doosan Bears

This was not a good month for the Bears. The core that led them to multiple championships is growing older, and perhaps it’s being reflected in the on-field results. Homegrown regulars like Jaewon Oh 오재원 and Soo-bin Jung 정수빈 are hitting below replacement level, while slowballer Hee-kwan Yoo 유희관 is no longer capable of pitching at the KBO level. Not all is lost, however. Longtime cleanup hitter Jae-hwan Kim 김재환 is still producing (152 wRC+) at the age of 33. The starting pitching is anchored by the ever-improving Aríel Miranda 미란다 and Won-jun Choi 최원준, though the latter’s ERA (2.80) and FIP (4.23) differential should have fans worried.

Then there’s the bullpen, which started off strong but has been decimated by injuries since:

The Bears’ Bullpen Woes
Player Injury Date Pre-injury ERA
Kang-ryul Kim 김강률 June 1 1.93
Hyeong-beom Lee 이형범 June 11 0.00
Seung-jin Lee 이승진 May 18 1.42
Chi-guk Park 박치국 April 21 3.24

As the numbers indicate, these aren’t minor blows; all four relievers played an integral role in making sure the Bears held onto close games. It’s not a coincidence that the team went 5-14 in one-run games alone in June. The Bears haven’t played good baseball as of late, but that doesn’t mean their season is finished. After a few recoveries and rebounds from regular contributors, this team is poised to make a late push for the playoffs.

Lotte Giants

With a .830 OPS, the hottest offense in June belonged to the Giants. That’s what happens when Dae-Ho Lee 이대호 comes back from the IL and everyone else concurrently begins to mash. But the real story here is the emergence of Jae-hyun Choo 추재현, whom the Giants acquired in April of 2020 from the Heroes. Nobody paid much attention to the trade then, so Choo quietly began to rake in the Futures League. When center fielder Byung-hun Min 민병헌 went under the knife earlier this year, Choo received the call and has yet to look back, hitting .294/.381/.449 while showing off impressive range in center.

Also deserving of the spotlight is Dixon Machado 마차도, the team’s everyday shortstop. Machado has been valuable thanks to his defense, but what’s surprising is how much his plate discipline has improved since coming to Korea. Consider how his walk and strikeout rates have shifted over the past few years:

Machado’s Discipline, 2017-21
Year BB% K%
2017 5.5% 17.7%
2018 6.0% 17.6%
2020 9.6% 10.7%
2021 13.7% 12.6%

As a result, Machado has the second-best on-base percentage (.372) amongst qualified shortstops this season and he’s also slugged enough to sustain a 105 wRC+. Not bad for a glove-first signing!

Despite a blazing offense, however, the Giants’ pitching has held them back. For example, it’s a bit worrying that Dan Straily 스트레일리 still seems off. Inconsistent command has led to more walks and an inability to pitch deeper into games. While the secondaries are still generating whiffs, hitters are teeing off his fastball; a pitch value per 100 of 1.49 last season has been brought down to -1.18. There’s still half a season left, though, so let’s keep the faith.

Kia Tigers

The Tigers weren’t terrible enough to warrant a teardown in last month’s recap, and I suggested they should stay on course and see where their season goes. Midway through the season, this team has not improved at all. If anything, it’s gotten worse. A 29-43 record is justified by a lack of runs scored (279, worst in the league) and a contrasting abundance of runs allowed (406, second-worst in the league). The offense is anemic. The pitching…

But let’s catch our breath. It’s been an extremely frustrating season for Tigers fans, who at least expected a semblance of competitive baseball. The blame has been placed on virtually everyone – the scouts who failed to replenish the Tigers’ farm system, the coaches who failed to oversee its prospects, and manager Matt Williams, who has received criticism for his poor roster management and tendency to overwork certain pitchers. Hopefully, those in charge realize how dire the situation is. Even if the Tigers don’t commit to a full rebuild, they should at least attempt to revamp their player development system. We’ll see what direction the team takes in the following months.

Hanwha Eagles

Woo-ram Jung 정우람, the Eagles’ legendary closer whose achievements rival those of Seunghwan Oh 오승환, broke the KBO record for most career games (902) last month. He’s still chugging along, extending his own record to 905 games with a scoreless inning on July 7.

The replacement bug also bit the Eagles, who parted ways with Ryon Healy and swiftly signed Hernán Pérez to a deal. During the offseason, I remember thinking to myself that Healy would either hit 40 home runs or strike out 150 times – boom or bust. He did neither, instead swinging a mediocre bat (86 wRC+) that lasted him through 67 games. Now in comes Pérez. My guess is that the Eagles are shooting for defensive versatility with Pérez rather than offensive output. It’s a fine decision, one that could complement Carlos Subero’s penchant for infield shifts.

In other news, the Eagles traded for Lions infielder Sung-kon Lee 이성곤 on June 25. It’s a minor transaction, but this article detailing how the Eagles front office explained its decision to Subero that caught my attention. GM Min-cheul Jung reportedly used metrics such as exit velocity and barrel rate in his presentation, which a few years ago would have been unthinkable in the KBO. Lee will get reps at first base due to Healy’s departure; I’m curious to see how his underlying data translates into on-field results.





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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asaw780
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asaw780

Didn’t Roberto Ramos have close to 40 homers last year in the KBO? Surprising that he could have swooned so quickly and badly in his second season abroad. I wonder if this means he’ll try to come back stateside.

Cubbie23
Member
Member
Cubbie23

I was thinking the same thing! Watching Ramos play last year during the ESPN pandemic coverage, I thought, “ok the guy can play” but to be dropped this season is a shock. I hope he hooks on somewhere else.