Keeping Up With the KBO: May, Part Two

This is Part Two 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 it, Part One discussed league-wide trends, then covered the SSG Landers, LG Twins, Samsung Lions, and NC Dinos. 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

KT Wiz

If there was any doubt regarding Baek-ho Kang 강백호’s superstar status, this season has blown it away. Through 52 games, the young first baseman is batting over .400. He’s second in the league in wRC+ and first in Batting WAR. What’s his secret? Kang doesn’t have overwhelming raw power – our Eric Longenhagen assigned it a 55 grade – but he’s consistent enough with what he has to sustain a high BABIP. He’s also extremely picky during at-bats, fouling and taking unfavorable pitches before pouncing on one he likes. Here’s a graphical representation of his swing decisions last season (courtesy of Statiz):

That’s some excellent selective aggression. Kang’s swing rates are in the 80s on in-zone pitches, but they drop dramatically on anything outside. He’s seeing and hitting the ball so well that in one game, the Lotte Giants introduced an extreme infield shift covering Kang’s pull-side. And what does he do? Why, he executes two perfect bunts the other way for hits, of course. Later that game, he deposited an 88 mph fastball into right field to go 3-for-5 overall. At this point, Kang’s defense is his only weakness. I think he ends up as a DH if he decides to tackle major league baseball, but he’ll mash enough to be at least a solid regular.

The rest of the Wiz hasn’t been as hot, but they’re hanging in there. Zoilo Almonte has been fine (108 wRC+). Controversy arose over his perceived lack of hustle, but it died down after Almonte’s hamstring issues came to light. Last season’s Rookie of the Year Hyeong Jun So 소형준 had what’s hopefully a bounce-back start against the Giants on June 5, striking out nine over seven shutout innings; the rest of the rotation has chugged along without any notable setbacks. Outside of a struggling bullpen that’s seen better days, this is still the solid team I covered last month.

Doosan Bears

The Doosan Bears are a bit like the St. Louis Cardinals, in that they manage to win enough games for a playoff berth no matter the circumstances. Remember when I criticized the Bears for trading the versatile Deok-ju Ham 함덕주 for a below-average infielder? Well, now that infielder has a name: Suk-hwan Yang 양석환, who topped out at an 88 wRC+ in 2017 and is currently posting a 118 wRC+ as the Bears’ everyday first baseman (his 12th home run of the year came today). Devil magic is in the air. This isn’t a BABIP-driven fluke, either, as Yang’s power surge seems genuine. Elsewhere, injuries have derailed Ham’s start to his 2021, though obviously the Twins couldn’t have foreseen that.

I also foolishly wrote that Aríel Miranda 미란다 “seemed like a disaster waiting to happen,” but lo and behold, the walks are down while the velocity and strikeouts have held. In my defense, it was difficult to tell which version of Miranda would ultimately emerge.

The Bears have a knack for signing and then refining foreign pitchers. That tradition began with Dustin Nippert 니퍼트 a decade ago, who was succeeded by Josh Lindblom 린드블럼, and more recently, Chris Flexen 플렉센 and Raúl Alcántara. But while Miranda has looked the part, the title of Magic Bears Foreign Pitcher this season belongs to Walker Lockett. Through 11 starts, Lockett leads all qualified pitchers in ERA (1.87) and all of the KBO in WAR (3.4). His FIP is of course higher, and I don’t buy his one-homer-per-67 innings pace, but Lockett’s sinker-changeup combo provides him a decent shot at reigning as one of the KBO’s premier contact suppressors. Both the rotation and the bullpen has been excellent, and so has the offense. This team is a well-oiled machine that will continue to operate until… I dunno, forever?

Kiwoom Heroes

I wrote last month that I’d be monitoring Jung-hoo Lee 이정후’s power. He’s hit just one home run in 53 games, so unfortunately it doesn’t seem like he’ll replicate his 15-homer 2020 season. Lee is still one of the league’s best hitters, mind you – he’s rocking a 161 wRC+ so far, but I would have loved to see a smooth, linear development. I do agree with Eric that the in-game power will eventually surge (30 present, 55 future), and he’s still 23, so Lee’s evolution as a slugger is far from complete.

The loss of a perennial 6 to 7 WAR player in Ha-Seong Kim 김하성 was huge for the Heroes, but Hye-seong Kim 김혜성, his similarly-named replacement, is filling what once felt like a gaping hole. Hye-seong plays to his strengths. He doesn’t have the pop of his predecessor, but he’s a brilliant baserunner, swiping 22 bags this year while getting caught just once. His defense pales in comparison, but he’s passable at short. He makes enough contact and draws enough walks to convincingly sustain a 90-100 wRC+. Hye-seong Kim isn’t the instantly recognizable star that Ha-Seong Kim was, but he’s all the Heroes need.

Now, what to do with ByungHo Park 박병호? His April demotion didn’t help at all; the first baseman has sunk to a 89 wRC+, a product of hitting .212/.317/.378. Park’s career arc reminds me of Miguel Cabrera’s, in the sense that both hitters’ outputs cratered at age 34-35. Injuries are to blame in Cabrera’s case, but for Park, there’s no obvious culprit. The only real blemish on his health record exists in 2020, when he missed two months due to a hip injury. It’s sad to see his fly balls repeatedly die at the warning track. Let’s hope Park has one last hurrah left in him.

KIA Tigers

To say the Tigers had a bad month might be an understatement. Their offense is still terrible, contributing to a league-trailing 18 home runs; for comparison, the league-leading Dinos have 75. Right fielder Won-jun Choi 최원준 and catcher Min-sik Kim 김민식 are disciplined enough to draw walks and remain productive, but the rest of the lineup just isn’t there. The Tigers desperately need Preston Tucker 터커’s power to return. It’s still out there, somewhere. Tucker belted 32 home runs in 2020, but he’s on pace for just nine this season.

Making matters worse, the pitching staff has been decimated by injuries. After completing a start on May 18, Daniel Mengden has been unavailable ever since with a forearm flexor strain, and Aaron Brooks is on the Injured List with the exact same issue. Without those two, the Tigers are left with an assorted mix of replacement-level stand-ins. The only possible way to salvage this situation is if rookie southpaw Eui-lee Lee goes on a tear, but my hopes aren’t high, as pessimistic as that sounds. Though his fastball, slider, and changeup are all plus pitches, inconsistent command led to 14 earned runs in 16.2 innings in May.

Overall, the outlook for this team does not look good. There’s no easy solution, either. The Tigers could wait for Brooks and Mengden to return, then hunt for a Wild Card spot, but it’s a risky gamble that could result in too many losses during the interim. At the same time, they’re not helpless enough (yet) to warrant a rebuild. The first option would reveal whether the second one is viable, so perhaps the team should continue on their course. For a better idea, let’s check back in next month.

Lotte Giants

They actually did it. The Giants fired manager Mun-hoe Her 허문회 and replaced him with Futures’ League (the KBO’s minor league equivalent) manager Larry Sutton 서튼, resolving a long-standing conflict between the front office over which direction the team should take.

As I noted in my April recap, the Giants were destined for baseball purgatory without such a change. The good news is that we’re going to see much more playing time allotted to Giants’ prospects. Already, pitcher-turned-catcher Gyun-an Na has made an impact in the rotation, handling 24.1 innings across four starts with a 3.94 FIP. Sutton has shown a preference for catcher Si-wan Ji 지시완, whose defense has improved and whose batted ball data is anecdotally above-average.

On the flip side, this semi-rebuild pushes the Giants farther away from contention. Some of the regulars were underperforming, sure, but they’re probably more reliable long-term compared to prospects still in development. The team is also unlikely to seek out a trade for a starter or a reliever. But really, it’s a new direction that will pay dividends in the future. Up to this point, the Giants had never committed themselves to a rebuild, let alone any sort of direction. I hope the fans are as patient as I am.

Hanwha Eagles

There’s not much to add onto what I wrote about the Eagles in May – they’re still in the midst of a complete rebuild, with its progress difficult to gauge as an outsider. One quirk I did notice is that the Eagles have the second-lowest ratio of flyouts to groundouts. Using this as a proxy for launch angle, it seems like the team’s young hitters could focus on elevating the ball more. Maybe the coaching staff is addressing this and it’s just I don’t know, but it did stand out.

Breakout hitter Si-hwan Roh 노시환’s own ratio is 0.67 (meaning more groundouts than flyouts), but he’s been torching baseballs when he doesn’t make outs. Roh was slugging .533 when I last wrote about him. He’s cooled down since, but only to a .497 mark, and he still leads his team with 11 home runs. But describing his talent through words isn’t enough. Here’s a grand slam he hit against the Dinos in a pivotal movement:

I’ve watched that blast about a dozen times now. His minimal, yet efficient stride reminds me of Giancarlo Stanton, and both are muscular enough to be consistent with one. Roh is also quick to open up his hips, which seems possible because of how he can immediately pivot his left knee outwards as the foot lands. All in all, it’s a compact and explosive swing, and I can’t wait to see if he can maintain his current pace for 30 home runs.

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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11 months ago

Had a lot of fun watching KBO games last year, and glad these recaps are being written. I have a lingering question I’m hoping someone can shed light on:

While watching Lotte Giants games last year, the announcers interspersed a fair bit of English in their commentary, and especially any phrase that involved and form of “slide”, e.g. “backdoor slider”, “sliding catch”, “head-first slide”. Can anyone explain? Does “slide” not translate well into Korean? Are the Giants’ announcers just quirky that way? Some other explanation?