Nothing Lost in Translation: Meet Dan Kurtz, the KBO’s Top Ambassador, Part 2

Last week, Dan Kurtz, the proprietor of MyKBO.net agreed to an email interview and offered more insights into the league than could fit into a single post. In Part 1, we discussed Kurtz’s background and how he became a go-to for all things KBO. Here we discuss the competitive landscape of the league and what to expect in 2020, all the more relevant for a U.S. audience that will now be able to watch KBO action on ESPN.

This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. For the purposes of clarity and familiarity, I have used the English naming order, placing Korean surnames last instead of first.

Jay Jaffe: What is it that has made the Doosan Bears so dominant in recent years, with five straight trips to the Korea Series and three championships in that span?

Dan Kurtz: Doosan has been the premier team of the late 2010s. I would credit that to not only the high level of play by some of their foreign players, such as Josh Lindblom, Dustin Nippert, and Jose Miguel Fernandez, but also to how few holes the team has had due to their depth at certain positions.

An example: Doosan lost the league’s best catcher to the NC Dinos prior to the 2019 season (Eui-ji Yang). How did the team respond? They plugged Se-hyuk Park in at catcher and proceeded to win another title. Their starting rotation during this time has also helped carry them to many wins, and while their foreign pitchers played a big role during their championships, their Korean counterparts also more than held their own.

JJ: Would you call the Bears the favorites to win this year? Who do you consider to be the league’s top contenders, and why?

DK: At the time of this interview, I’ve yet to make my official predictions — by the way, please don’t take my predictions to the bank or betting window. If history has proven anything, it’s that my predictions don’t always come to fruition. But if I were a betting man, placing money on Doosan to repeat would not be a bad bet. Doosan is trying to replace Lindblom and Seth Frankoff in their rotation, and they think they’ve have found those replacements in Raul Alcantara and Chris Flexen.

There are a few other teams I think may push Doosan this year. The Kiwoom Heroes have the best bullpen in the league, which is one of the greatest luxuries to have in the KBO. With their lineup of ByungHo Park and Ha-sung Kim, and their pitching rotation starting with Jake Brigham and Eric Jokisch, a trip back to the Korean Series is not out of the question.

The SK Wyverns, like Doosan, have been a dominant team in the late 2010s. Their loss of Kwang Hyun Kim will hopefully be minimized by Nick Kingham and company. With Jeong Choi at the hot corner and Jamie Romak hitting bombs, SK will find a way to stay in the hunt.

Two other teams I think might perform better than expected are the NC Dinos and the LG Twins. NC has added Mike Wright to team up with Drew Rucinski in their rotation. NC also has the arms of Jae-hak Lee and Chang-mo Koo, who had a breakout season last year. Aaron Altherr will be manning center field, alongside potential MLBer Sung-bum Na. Na’s recovering from an injury, but appears to be healthy and ready to show off for the scouts.

The LG Twins have two aces in their rotation with Casey Kelly and Tyler Wilson hoping to build on excellent seasons last year. With Hyun-soo Kim being solid as he usually is, the hope is that Roberto Ramos can add a bit of pop in their lineup, despite playing in the pitcher friendly Jamsil Stadium.

JJ: The Lotte Giants are amid quite a makeover with a new general manager (Sung Min-kyu) who previously worked for the Cubs and calls himself a “devotee” of sabermetrics, a new catching coach who was very good at pitch framing (Hank Conger), and a couple of FanGraphs alumni on staff (Sung Min Kim and Josh Herzenberg). What’s your perception of where the team fits into the league as far as its use of analytics, and do you think they’ll be successful in the long run?

DK: I love what Lotte has done so far this offseason. They have an entirely new regime, which will hopefully mean the issues of the old regime are in the past and gone for good — issues like using security cameras to check in on their players at hotels unknowingly.

The fact that GM Sung came in and hired people from the outside who raised a few eyebrows I would consider a good thing. The days of the ‘good ole boys’ are hopefully gone in the KBO, and Lotte is trusting this new process. As a 76ers fan, ‘trusting the process’ has been quite a process and it will be no different for fans of the Giants. Lotte has a loyal fan base and when the Giants are winning, it makes the KBO that much better — there are large crowds anywhere Lotte plays, and rivalries start taking on bigger meaning than say playing to win your 48th game of the season etc.

My only concern for the new regime is that they may not be given enough time to see their entire process come to fruition. While I don’t see Lotte in the playoffs this season, and I don’t think many are expecting them to be, I see them improving on their performance from last season and surprising a few teams, media members, and fans. The question will be what are the owner’s expectations in year two and beyond? If Lotte can begin turning it around on the field this season, there will be hope among their fans. Will those same fans and ownership be expecting a lot more in years two and three? We shall see. Overall, the new hires have been great for Lotte and I’m excited to see how different the team looks on the field this season.

JJ: In recent years we’ve seen KBO stars like ByungHo Park, Dae-Ho Lee, and Hyun Soo Kim come over to MLB, struggle to replicate their success, and return to the KBO. What kind of reception do they get upon returning? Do you think it’s easier for pitchers (such as Hyun-Jin Ryu and Seunghwan Oh) to come over and succeed here?

DK: The reception those three guys have received upon returning has been quite good. While fans are happy to have them back in the KBO, they are also a bit sad their careers didn’t pan out like everyone had hoped. I feel that had Park not picked up some of the injuries he did, he’d possibly still be mashing home runs. A healthy ByungHo is a scary bat to face for anyone. I think that some fans feel that Hyun-soo Kim didn’t quite get a fair shake in Baltimore. When he left for MLB, I was sure he’d have a solid career, but alas, he did all he could do in Baltimore and returned home (to a new KBO team as well). As for Dae-Ho Lee, I honestly felt if he had come over a bit earlier in his career, he’d have lasted longer than he did.

While I don’t know why it appears easier for KBO pitchers to have more success in MLB than KBO bats, I expect all the players most likely face the similar challenges on and off the field. From trying to juggle learning a new baseball system to playing on Mondays (KBO’s league-wide off day is Monday) to simply moving your family over to a new country, it has stresses I’m sure affect players in that situation the same way they would affect the foreign players coming to the KBO. While circumstances out of a player’s control have seemed to affect a few of the careers of KBO exports, my hope is that the next few (Ha-seong Kim, Hyeon-jong Yang, possibly Sung-bum Na) will find success and end up having a solid MLB careers. When Chan Ho Park decided to end his MLB career, he played one more season for his hometown Hanwha Eagles, as a swan song. I think it’s probably a lot of these guys’ dreams to have success in MLB and return to the KBO on their own terms for a farewell tour of their own. Hopefully, we will see a few more of those tours.

JJ: Who would you call the league’s best hitter, best fielder, and best pitcher?

DK: For the league’s best hitter, if I were to go simply by WAR via Statiz (a great Korean language site for those looking for more advanced stats), it would be Kiwoom’s Ha-seong Kim (attention MLB scouts: his team has said he will be posted after this season). Another guy I’d put there is catcher Eui-ji Yang; last season he hit .354.

For best fielder, I’d probably put LG’s shortstop Ji-hwan Oh up there along with Samsung’s Hae-min Park. LG’s Oh has gotten better over the years and has reduced his errors, and Hae-min Park seems to make catch after catch for Samsung.

The best Korean pitcher is KIA’s Hyeon-jong Yang. Despite KIA turning down the posting bid for him 2014, I hope he gets his chance to come to MLB after this season. I really wish he’d have come to MLB for the 2015 season when he was younger. He’s become a more polished pitcher and I expect him to have another great season for KIA.

JJ: Beyond the stats, are there players with outsized personalities who stand out in the KBO, guys who are stars for the way they relate to the public?

DK: The one guy that stands out is NC’s Suk-min Park. His on field personality is very comedic at times, but he still has some pop at the plate. Another player who many opposing fans seem to love to dislike is Doosan’s Jae-won Oh. His personality on-field seems to rub all other fan bases the wrong way, but he’s beloved by his Doosan fans. Dae-Ho Lee is a huge star in the league, and also does a lot for the local community in Busan; he is generally well regarded for not only his play on the field, but also for his generosity within the community.

JJ: Is there a foreign player you’re particularly excited to see or think is well-equipped to succeed?

DK: I am looking forward to seeing Nick Kingham and how he does for SK. He was a top prospect and while his time in MLB didn’t work out, I think if he has success in KBO, he may find a few more MLB teams interested. He landed on a team that has been successful in the recent past, but lost an ace (Kim Kwang-hyun and before that Merrill Kelly) and needs him to step right into the team ace role – no pressure!

Another player I am looking forward to seeing is a former Phillies outfielder, Aaron Altherr. While he may not bring the pop of former Dinos slugger Eric Thames, he will do well teamed up with Eui-ji Yang and Sung-bum Na. Also, with above average defense in the outfield, I expect him to help the Dinos a lot. And while they aren’t rookies to the KBO, I’m also excited about LG’s duo of Casey Kelly and Tyler Wilson. They both had good years in 2019 and I expect them to continue that success since they are both now league vets.

JJ: How does it feel to have the eyes of the baseball world focused on the KBO right now? I know you’ve worked hard to present a great deal of information about the league, its history, and how to access it. Have you gotten a lot of positive response?

DK: It’s been 20 years since I started following the KBO and I never expected this sudden interest and genuine curiosity about the league. I am very glad to see that fans of baseball and sports in general are looking forward to watching the KBO. I always like to let new fans to the league know that while it’s not MLB-caliber, it’s a professional league where you may see the next Hyun-Jin Ryu on the same field as a 19-year-old kid who would’ve been in rookie ball in MiLB. Due to the small talent pool KBO teams have to pull from (60-ish high schools playing baseball), roster depth affects the overall quality of play.

I’m not a fan of doing direct comparisons, but since new fans want a general idea, from this non-scout/non-baseball industry fan, I’d say on a good day you may see Triple-A level of play; on a bad day, you may want to compare it to Double-A. If new fans try to compare the KBO to MLB all the time, they will not fully enjoy the league for what it is … the KBO. Yes, I know the KBO is not MLB; that’s why I enjoy the uniqueness of the KBO. I hope new fans to the league will be able to pick up on this KBO-ness, as I refer to it, and continue following the league even when MLB/MiLB returns.

JJ: We left off Part 1 with your thoughts about the possibility of an ESPN deal to show live KBO games in the US. Just hours after publication, the news broke: one game a day, six days a week, all the way through the end of the season, Korean Series included. How excited are you by the news of this deal, and what do you think of the details of the plan, using its in-house talent via remote setup and airing games live but in the wee hours for US audiences? [Since my interview, Jeff Passan has reported that the network will re-air games at times that are friendlier to US viewers’ sleep schedules.]

DK: I am super excited by this TV deal. Never in my 20 years of following the league did I dream of being able to turn on ESPN and watch the KBO. My dream has come true. I hope the league, players, and teams are just as excited as I am. For the long-term outlook for the league, I think this is great for market recognition and even player talent recognition.

But on the flip side, I can also see how maybe a team or the league is worried that now that all of MLB will have easier access to Korean baseball than they ever have before, they may deplete a team or the league of its stars. It’s a good worry to have, in my opinion, because if a player is good enough to catch the eye of an MLB team, he would’ve eventually been found. ESPN just makes that finding maybe that much easier.

Overall, I’m ecstatic about this deal for American baseball fans and the Korea Baseball Organization.

We hoped you liked reading Nothing Lost in Translation: Meet Dan Kurtz, the KBO’s Top Ambassador, Part 2 by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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