Keeping Up With the KBO: May, Part One

This is Part One of the May 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 them, be sure to check out Parts One and Two of my April recap. 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, 6/8/21
Team W-L Pct. GB
SSG Landers 29-22 .569 0.0
LG Twins 30-23 .566 0.0
Samsung Lions 30-23 .566 0.0
KT Wiz 28-23 .549 1.0
NC Dinos 27-24 .529 2.0
Doosan Bears 27-24 .529 2.0
Kiwoom Heroes 26-28 .481 4.5
Kia Tigers 21-30 .412 8.0
Hanwha Eagles 21-31 .404 8.5
Lotte Giants 20-31 .392 9.0
SOURCE: Naver Sports

League Trends

The League Has Split Into Two Groups

As evidenced by the standings, we’re starting to see a division between the contenders and the bottom-dwellers. The Landers, Twins, Lions, Wiz, Dinos, Bears, and Heroes are all within a few games of each other, while the Tigers, Eagles, and Giants have fallen behind.

Still, this is weird. There’s usually an even gap between each team; rarely does the league split into clear haves and have-nots. The parity of the first month or so has simply been partitioned into two groups, with teams fighting for the upper hand as we enter the heat of summer. It’s good fun, and I especially enjoy the Korean media’s attempts at celebrating the ascendance of team X, only for team Y to dethrone it the next week.

So who ultimately joins the group of five headed for the playoffs? It’s early, but I’d pick (in no particular order) the Dinos, Twins, Bears, and Wiz, with a toss-up between the Lions and Heroes for the final spot. Next, it’s time to check on the individual teams. Have they been good? Bad? Just hanging in there? Find out below:

Team Notes

SSG Landers

When I first wrote about the Landers, I blasted them for hogging the fifth place spot with a shoddy run differential. One month later, they’re in first. Nostradamus, I am not. The run differential is still negative, but it’s better than before – I’ll give them credit for that. All-Star third baseman Jeong Choi 최정 went on an absolute tear in May, slashing .357/.495/.743 with seven home runs. I underestimated Wilmer Font 폰트 in my initial recap, but he’s blossomed into an ace. Here’s footage from his most recent start, in which he struck out 12 and didn’t issue a walk:

As the GIF shows, Font’s repertoire is anchored by a fastball that touches 98 mph and a 12-6 curveball with massive vertical drop. He throws a slider, too, which looks average at best but does generate whiffs. He drastically reduced his sinker usage in recent starts in favor of the four-seamer, which could explain the uptick in strikeouts. Barring a sudden collapse, Font looks to be the Landers’ No. 1 starter moving forward.

But the team isn’t without strife. After removing himself from a start due to right elbow pain, submariner Jong-hun Park 박종훈 flew to LA to receive a diagnosis from Dr. ElAttrache (uh-oh). The Landers have replaced foreign pitcher Artie Lewicki, whose health issues became apparent, with Sam Gaviglio. So at least for now, the team lacks two reliable starters.

Meanwhile, I want to direct your attention towards Shin-Soo Choo 추신수’s .268/.427/.451 line. After posting an uncharacteristically low BABIP in April and parts of May despite hard contact, Choo’s batted balls have begun to land for hits. He isn’t hitting for consistent power, a fact that’s garnered criticism. It seems unjustified, though; his career slugging percentage stateside was .447. Choo’s value lies in his plate discipline, and it’s been on full display en route to a 143 wRC+. He’s doing his best.

LG Twins

Most of what I wrote about the Twins last month is still relevant: The bullpen is excellent, and while Roberto Ramos 라모스 is finding his footing, this is still one of the league’s best teams. Since then, they’ve become even better. I noted that the rotation beyond Andrew Suárez and Casey Kelly 켈리 was bare. But Woo-chan Cha 차우찬, who hadn’t pitched for nearly a year due to injuries, made a successful comeback with five scoreless frames. Twenty-year-old Min-ho Lee이민호 has settled in as a fifth starter, and veteran righty Chan-heon Jeong 정찬헌 has been solid with a 4.42 FIP.

In addition, I’m surprised by how useful the team’s depth has become. Bo-gyeong Moon 문보경 was called up this season to share first base with Ramos, and it’s Moon’s ability to draw walks that has mitigated the position’s weakness. The Twins have two fantastic options at right field. Hyung-jong Lee 이형종 is a consistent pull-hitter with 20 home run potential, and Eun-seong Chae 채은성 has a 144 wRC+ this season via a higher rate of line drives.

Rhe Twins also have breakout stars who are continuing their success in 2021. The most notable example is outfielder Chang-ki Hong 홍창기. After playing in just 38 games from 2016-19, he became the team’s everyday center fielder in 2020 and excelled, posting a 126 wRC+. Similar to Moon, his greatest asset is plate discipline, and it’s scary to think it might have improved. Hong has 43 walks against 27 strikeouts this season, for an on-base percentage of .457; that’s third-best in the league. The team as a whole has the KBO’s highest strikeout-to-walk ratio, hinting at an organizational philosophy.

Samsung Lions

The Lions have followed up on their torrid April start, and they don’t seem out of place at third. That being said, I’m slightly worried that cracks will begin to form. For example, I do think Tae-in Won 원태인 is legitimately good, but batters are figuring out his changeup and are making more contact against it. Jose Pirela and Minho Kang 강민호 have the team’s best and third-best wRC+ respectively, but it seems like their production has been driven by grounders, which is less ideal even in the KBO.

David Buchanan 뷰캐넌 has been a rock solid ace. The team hoped for Chae-heung Choi 최채흥 to successfully rejoin the rotation, but a few disastrous starts have shown that he’s nowhere near ready; it could be that the effects of his injury still linger. Speaking of injury, the Lions signed Mike Montgomery to a one-year deal after it became necessary for Ben Lively 라이블리 to undergo surgery on his shoulder. It’s a decision that should have fans excited given Montgomery’s pedigree. I’m also optimistic about his pitching style, which prioritizes soft contact over strikeouts and reminds me of Aaron Brooks or Eric Jokisch.

In the bullpen, Seunghwan Oh 오승환 is still closing out games despite a heater that now averages 90 mph. He’s been effective, too, with a 2.57 ERA and 3.42 FIP. The longevity of his career is awe-inspiring, and I hope he has a few years left in the tank – watching him lob fastballs down the pipe is a can’t-miss KBO experience. He’s accompanied by 36-year-old Kyumin Woo 우규민, who has technically been the Lions’ best relief arm. It’s great to see the former-starter-turned-reliever receive the spotlight.

NC Dinos

See, there’s no need to worry about our swole daddy overlords. The Dinos are just two games behind first, with more runs scored than any other team. Among the many standouts in the Dinos’ lineup, Euiji Yang 양의지 deserves his own paragraph. First, his offensive line is ridiculous: .360/.475/.646, which works out to a 196 wRC+. Here are some frequently asked questions about him:

  • Is he a first baseman or a designated hitter? He’s a catcher, though he does occasionally DH to preserve his strength.
  • Does that mean his defense is lacking? Several pitchers, including foreigners, have praised his ability to call games.
  • He must be in his prime then, right? About that – Yang turned 34 this year. Overall, if you fused Joe Mauer’s contact, Mike Piazza’s power, and Yadier Molina’s defense into one athlete, the end result would be Euiji Yang. He struck out once in May while slugging above .700. As a 34-year old catcher.

But enough fanboying on my end. Once again, the pitching has been an issue for this team, though it’s at least looking up. Min-hyeok Shin 신민혁, who I covered last month, has indeed become a reliable starter. Wes Parsons’ pre-season injury didn’t lead to a dramatic decline in performance; his FIP (3.31) is lower than his ERA (4.13) and that, along with an elite strikeout rate (by KBO standards) of 27.1%, suggests that he can be a No. 2 starter.

The Dinos snagged last-standing free agent pitcher Yongchan Lee to bolster their bullpen, which is currently seventh in WAR. And best of all, after multiple setbacks and murky progress reports, Chang-mo Koo 구창모 finally appeared in a one-inning rehab start. His velocity was down as expected, but manager Dong-wook Lee 이동욱 expressed his satisfaction with the outing. If Koo can recapture some of the magic of his 2020 campaign, that’s one less worry for the Dinos.

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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jamed
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jamed

Thanks for this!