Presenting a 2021 KBO Preview

The Korean Baseball Organization is an entertaining league that stands on its own merits. The talent level is high, the games competitive, the playoffs spectacular, and the crowds unlike anything seen in an American ballpark. The league’s very existence offers a pleasant alternative for those who have grown weary of tanking MLB teams and the league’s clunky stewardship of the game. Even better, the action on the field is a refreshing reminder that the Three True Outcomes don’t have to be the Three Primary Objectives. Watch a little, and you’ll enjoy a few bat flips. Watch a lot, and you can get hooked.

For those new to the league, I want to start with a brief rundown of the KBO and how it operates.

The KBO is a 10-team league. Each club is named after the corporation that owns it (hi Samsung!), not the city where the team plays. Each team plays 144 games, facing the other nine teams 16 times apiece. Games are declared ties after 12 innings (15 in the postseason), and those contests have no bearing on a team’s winning percentage. Five teams make the playoffs, where the league uses a step-ladder format: The fifth- and fourth-placed teams battle in a Wild Card round, the winner faces the three seed, and so on. It’s way better this way.

In terms of gameplay, it’s a different brand of baseball. The first thing you’ll notice is the contact. The league’s strikeout rate was about 2 K/9 less than in MLB last year, and if anything that undersells the difference because there are a lot more base hits: The KBO’s collective batting average was .273 last year, nearly 30 points higher than in the majors.

The second thing you’ll notice is the fielding, which is further from MLB quality than the league’s hitting or pitching. As you’d expect, there’s generally less range and arm strength, but you’ll also see more errors on routine plays. It’s an adjustment for some people, but I actually like it; more suspense on balls in play.

The pitching is noticeably slower. Anyone in the 90s (145 kmh!) has a pretty good arm, and only a handful of guys can top 95. You’ll see a lot of junk and quite a few sidearmers. Most pitchers have very clean deliveries, and the good ones have pretty good command. You’ll also see more bunting here than in the majors, although not obnoxiously so. The running game is generally not a big factor.

One roster quirk is that teams are limited to three foreign players each. Those players tend to be stars in this league, particularly on the pitching side. Only two such players are allowed in the lineup at any one time, so teams generally roster two pitchers and one position player.

It’s difficult to compare the KBO to a particular level of American baseball; the talent distribution is just too wide. Each KBO roster has at least a few players who could step onto a major league roster and not look out of place. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the bench bats and mop-up relievers wouldn’t sniff rookie ball. Average it out, and you get something between High- and Double-A, with a few guys down on a rehab assignment.

I find the Jae-Gyun Hwang case study useful. As a San Francisco Giant, Hwang was a replacement level player. An average hitter in Triple-A, he got his big league shot and even homered in his debut. In time though, pitchers found the holes in his swing, exploited them thoroughly, and Hwang was sent back to the minors. A Role 30 player in MLB, Hwang is a Role 70 in the KBO: A star, if not one of the 3-5 best players in the league. That’s as good of a frame of reference as any.

Ultimately, if you’re expecting MLB-quality baseball, you’ll get it in doses but probably wind up disappointed. The remedy is simply to not insist on that standard, to enjoy the KBO in all its splendor, and to have fun watching something just a little bit out of the ordinary.

How to Watch: It’s a bit trickier this year. ESPN isn’t broadcasting games anymore, which means that we’ll have to get a bit creative. Naver, a Korean media organization, broadcasts all games live, and also offers replays and highlights. Unfortunately, if you want the replays and highlights, you’ll need a VPN. The wild card here is Twitch, which broadcast all games and hosted archives last season. I’m not sure if that arrangement will continue, but it was an eleventh-hour development in 2020 so I’m holding out hope. If they’re back on Twitch, that will be the easiest way to watch.

When Does the Season Start?

Tomorrow!

Standings Predictions

2021 KBO Standings Predictions
Rank Team
1 NC Dinos
2 LG Twins
3 Doosan Bears
4 KT Wiz
5 Kiwoom Heroes
6 Lotte Giants
7 Kia Tigers
8 SSG Landers
9 Samsung Lions
10 Hanwha Eagles

Awards Predictions

MVP: Jung-hoo Lee 이정후

Choi Dong-won (Cy Young): Dan Straily 스트레일리

Team Previews

NC Dinos
2020 Finish: 1/10
2021 Prediction: 1/10
Three Names You Know: Aaron Altherr 알테어, Drew Rucinski 루친스키,
Three Names You Should Learn: Sung-bum Na 나성범, Euiji Yang 양의지, Chang-mo Koo 구창모
Ephemera: One of the two dinosaurs roaming around Changwon NC Park is this guy, affectionately nicknamed Swole Daddy.

Why they might win at all: In the KBO, rosters are generally fairly stable from year to year. There are rookies and retirements, of course, and the departure for or return from military service add a unique wrinkle. But trades aren’t as common as they are in MLB and few major players swap teams in free agency. Most big additions and subtractions come from the foreign player pool, which turns over frequently. Obviously, poor performers are let go, but those who dominate the circuit tend to get poached by MLB or NPB teams. Given the uncertainty surrounding how any individual new player will handle the adjustment to the Korean game and culture — hardly a formality — the sweet spot for teams is to find players who perform really well but still below the threshold at which someone else will come offering more money.

In that sense, the Dinos rolled boxcars last winter. Altherr and Rucinski were two of the best players at their respective positions in 2020, and while each sniffed around for other work, they’re back to defend their title. Na, who actively tested MLB waters, couldn’t find a big league suitor and so he returns as well. It’s just a matter of time before Koo heads to the States, but he’s coming back for at least one more year. The 2020 champs are loaded, relatively young, and enter the season as favorites to repeat.

What will likely happen: See above. The Dinos practically went wire to wire last year and, unlike the two squads that finished directly behind them, they didn’t lose any of their horses. NC isn’t so good that they’re likely to boatrace the league — squint and you’ll notice a few of their contributing players had career seasons in 2020 — but they’re clear favorites nonetheless.

LG Twins
2020 Finish: 4/10
2021 Prediction: 2/10
Former Big Leaguers: Casey Kelly 켈리, Hyun Soo Kim 김현수, Andrew Suárez (Roberto Ramos 라모스 is also here, and he’s the only foreign player in the league without big league experience)
Three Names You Should Learn: Min-ho Lee, Woo-young Jung 정우영, Ji-hwan Oh 오지환
Ephemera: As a fellow traveler in the Long-Limbed club, I have to mention that Woo-young Jung has the largest leg-to-torso ratio I’ve ever seen. A scout’s dream, this.

Why they might win at all: Remember how NC’s big advantage was that none of their best players were recruited away to richer pastures? LG got the run of the green here too. Kelly and Ramos are back, as is teen sensation Min-ho Lee. Suárez is also one of the better signings in recent memory: He’ll be one of the hardest throwers in the league, and his roundhouse curveball will give everyone fits. This is as good of a top three as any staff in the KBO and on top of that, they have Woo-young Jung as an old-timey relief ace out of the ‘pen to shore things up. It’s a deep staff, a pretty good defense, and an offense that’s better than the numbers look (thanks to Jamsil Stadium, the park where fly balls go to die). Hyun Soo Kim is still good and looks exactly like the player who performed so well in his first year in Baltimore.

What will likely happen: Every team leans heavily on its top starters and best relievers, none more so than the Twins. LG’s six best pitchers are very good but the bridge between the rotation and the back of the bullpen is shaky ground. So long as the staff holds up, the Twins are the top challengers to NC. If anyone goes down, reinforcements will find themselves under-armed and overwhelmed. Ultimately, it’s hard to see this outfit missing the postseason, and a finish near the top of the table seems likely.

Doosan Bears
2020 Finish: 3/10
2021 Prediction: 3/10
Former Big Leaguers: Aríel Miranda, Walker Lockett, Jose Fernandez
Three Names You Should Learn: Jae-hwan Kim 김재환, Kun-woo Park, Kyoung-min Hur
Ephemera: Eh, they’re the Yankees, what’s the fun in that?

Why they might it all: Korea’s New York Yankees equivalent, the Bears will never stray far from the summit. In Fernandez and Kim, Doosan has a couple of MVP candidates to anchor the batting order, while Soo-bin Jung 정수빈’s speed is a huge asset in Jamsil’s cavernous center field (the Bears and Twins share a home stadium). Even with a few free agent departures, the middle of the order remains quite good.

The Bears should also be strong at the top of the rotation. Lockett and Miranda are both newcomers, and as guys with strong recent track records in the high minors and some MLB rotation experience, they look like good signings. They’ll need to eat a bunch of innings, and here Miranda was a particularly savvy signing: Unlike most new foreign pitchers, Miranda pitched a full season last year, when he played in Taiwan.

What will likely happen: Doosan was the pre-season favorite a year ago, but the club’s lack of pitching depth got exposed over the summer, and they finished among the jumble of teams that all practically tied for second. The Bears did very little to address that lack of depth this winter, and appear to be headed for battle with a bad bullpen and shaky rotation behind the foreign arms. Meanwhile, the offense is good — second in the league in runs scored a year ago — but getting a little long in the tooth: The KBO has a generous aging curve, but it’s a little concerning that every significant contributor is over 30. On paper, this is the worst Bears team since their last losing season, in 2014. There’s enough talent to reach the playoffs, but the path will be more treacherous than usual this season.

KT Wiz
2020 Finish: 2/10
2021 Prediction: 4/10
Former Big Leaguers: Odrisamer Despaigne 데스파이네, William Cuevas 쿠에바스, Zoilo Almonte, Jae-Gyun Hwang 황재균
Three Names You Should Learn: Baek-ho Kang 강백호, Hyeong Jun So 소형준, Jung-dae Bae 배정대
Ephemera: How about this child, wrapped in a giant bubble, delivering a socially distant first pitch on Opening Day last year?

Why they might win it all: Korean pitching staffs are notoriously shallow. Things start to get squeaky when it’s the fourth starter’s turn, and for the No. 5, you might as well make it a bullpen game. Except, well, the bullpens aren’t really any better. Oftentimes, the KBO is like the major leagues 20-plus years ago, where the top three starters and the closer are easily the four best pitchers on the team, there are a couple of average arms lurking around, and it’s a white knuckler for managers after that.

Except for KT.

The Wiz return their two former big leaguers, and Despaigne in particular is a difference maker. He’s the only guy in the entire league who pitches every five days instead of six, and the extra 50 innings or so he throws are incredibly valuable. Beyond them, So is an emerging star, Je-seong Bae is perhaps the best No. 4 in the league, and Young-pyo Ko is returning from military service to round out the rotation. He struck out nearly a batter per inning in his last action, with an above average ERA. This is a great rotation, and with Jae Yun Kim and Kwon Ju in relief, not a bad bullpen. They were the best team in the league for the better part of five months; maybe they can stretch it to six this time around.

What will likely happen: They’re probably going to take a step back. Mel Rojas Jr. 로하스 ran away with the MVP award and then bolted to Japan for a new challenge this season. However good Almonte is, and he should be a solid addition, that’s going to hurt. Beyond that, manager Kang-chul Lee is a guy who tends to stick with his veterans, which could be a problem. The club has a number of aging regulars, and they’ll perhaps get too many chances to fail before they get pulled from the lineup. Ultimately, if the Wiz stay reasonably healthy, they probably sneak back into the playoffs, and I think they have just enough depth to get over the line.

Kiwoom Heroes
2020 Finish: 5/10
2021 Prediction: 5/10
Former Big Leaguers: David Freitas, Eric Jokisch, Josh A. Smith, ByungHo Park
Three Names You Should Learn: Jung-hoo Lee, Geonchang Seo , Sang-Woo Cho
Ephemera: Kiwoom is one of three teams in Seoul, and the only one in the KBO that plays in a dome. You’ve probably seen games from the Gocheok Skydome during the WBC.

Why they might win it all: Jung-hoo Lee. As a 21-year-old, Lee hit .333/.397/.524, with 59 walks and 47 strikeouts, and a career-best 15 homers. He has incredible bat-to-ball skills, a great eye, he can run, he can play the outfield, he’s developing power, and he’s one of the youngest regulars in the league. One of these years, he’s going to explode with a .380 average or something wild like that, and if it happens this year, he could carry this team all the way.

Kiwoom also has one other hidden advantage. They play their home games in a dome, which means that they have fewer rainouts than anyone during the rainy months. It sounds like nothing, but it’s actually a big advantage: When the KBO finishes the year with overflow games (as opposed to cancellations or double headers, the league just adds a week or two to the season and teams make up games then) Kiwoom plays fewer of them than anyone, giving them a chance to rest their good pitchers while their league rivals wear themselves out.

What will likely happen: Kiwoom had a bad winter. They lost Ha-seong Kim 김하성, which, what can you do? But they also let go of long-time ace Jake Brigham, which seemed like an overreaction to minor injuries last year. They replace him with Smith, a guy who hasn’t started in a year and a half and struggled in his last taste of Triple-A. It could be fine, but this seems like an unnecessary gamble. They also signed Freitas, which also struck me as a bit weird: He won’t catch every day, not with Dong-won Park 박동원 around. He also won’t play first too much, as Park is locked in to that position. Maybe it’ll be a masterstroke to have him catch the American pitchers, and maybe he takes to KBO pitching and torches the league. Given the state of the team’s defense though, I think I’d want someone who was going to play the field more regularly.

Ultimately, regardless of how Freitas and Smith perform, there’s no way to replace a seven-win homegrown player like Ha-seong Kim. On paper, the Heroes lost more talent than anyone, and while they’re probably still good enough to squeak back into the playoffs, it’s hard to see them moving up too much in the standings.

SSG Landers
2020 Finish: 9/10
2021 Prediction: 6/10
Former Big Leaguers: Shin-Soo Choo, Jamie Romak, Wilmer Font, Artie Lewicki
Three Names You Should Learn: Jeong Choi 최정, Dong-min Han, Seung-won Moon
Ephemera: Where to begin? The team just changed its name from the SK Wyverns to the SSG Landers, their park is delightfully old school, last year’s manager had to be rushed to the hospital after collapsing from stress mid-game… There’s a lot going on here.

Why they might win it all: Games in the KBO do not follow the predictable rhythms they do here in the States. In the major leagues, when a team gets a lead, it brings in good relievers who usually take care of business and shepherd the game to its logical conclusion. Even small leads early in games tend to hold up.

I don’t have WPA numbers for the KBO. What I can say is that, if you’re watching a game where your favorite team is losing by six in the eighth inning, hold your horses, this isn’t over yet. Most clubs have only a small handful of good pitchers and they can’t throw every inning of every game. When a team gets a five-run lead, managers have to gamble that this time their 80-throwing, hitter-walking, seven-ERA sidearmer is going to get three or four outs without too much fuss. Often as not, things go sideways and you have a close ballgame where there really shouldn’t have been one. Longtime fans and scribes refer to this phenomenon as “KBOness.” And what could possibly be a better encapsulation of the league’s capacity for emotional roller-coasting than the Landers yo-yoing from 88 wins to 51 to a title in the span of three years?

The thing is: It’s not entirely out of the question. Last year, the Wyverns (this name change will be the end of me) functionally played with only one foreign player: Romak was fine, but Nick Kingham basically missed the whole year and replacement Tyler White barely saw any time as well. Ricardo Pinto 핀토 was a disaster, no better than any generic sixth starter in the league. This wasn’t the only problem in Incheon, but it was insurmountable: The Dinos, wire-to-wire champions, probably wouldn’t have been a playoff team if they had to take 60 starts from Drew Rucinski and Mike Wright 라이트 and give them to long relievers, which was the handicap the Wyverns were dealing with.

With two fresh foreign arms, a new second baseman, and Shin-Soo Choo subbing in for sub-replacement level players, a 15 WAR improvement sounds conservative. There’s a chance the impact is even greater than that, and if literally anything else goes right for this club, they’ll be in the playoff mix. From there, well, KBOness can handle the rest.

What will likely happen: Aw hell if I know. The Landers may have added 20 WAR and if you’re capable of reconciling that kind of infusion into a roster constructed from the charred remnants of Tire Fire Mountain, you’re a better analyst than I. My gut tells me that this unit is tilted a wee bit too far toward the scrub side of the stars-and-scrubs model, but for me, they’re the hardest team to place. It should be a fun ride either way.

Lotte Giants
2020 Finish: 7/10
2020 Prediction: 7/10
Former Big Leaguers: Dae-Ho Lee, Dan Straily, Dixon Machado 마차도, Enderson Franco
Three Names You Should Learn: Ah-seop Son 손아섭, Junwoo Jeon, Jun-won Seo 서준원
Ephemera: Look at how freaking weird Ah-seop Son’s bat handle is

Why they might win it all: Straily and Son are good places to start. By my eye test, the American was the league’s best pitcher in 2020 and it’s a huge boon for Lotte that he’s back. Son, meanwhile, had possibly his best season as a professional last year. He missed the batting crown by .02 points and also walked more than he struck out, while chipping in with solid defense and 11 homers. These two will have to shoulder a heavy burden though, because while the Giants are mostly solid up and down the roster, they’re a bit light on star power.

Two players will be critical if the Giants are to go on a run. The first is Machado, who is a bit of an odd duck as the league’s only foreign player signed for his glove. He provided stellar defense last season and should again in 2021, but it’s the bat that bears watching: He notched a 108 wRC+ last year and if he can take step a forward this year (he had 17 homers and a .480 SLG in Triple-A in 2019, for what it’s worth), he’ll be a superstar.

The other is former club captain Byeong-heon Min. Min snapped a streak of seven consecutive .300-plus averages amidst a miserable campaign last year, one that cost him his job as the team’s starting center fielder. Turns out, there was an explanation for his struggles: he was playing through a brain aneurysm! That doesn’t sound possible, but it’s true! He’s not back in action yet, and obviously health is the more important thing here, but if he can get back on the field and play like his old self, Lotte could make a playoff run.

What will likely happen: They’ll go as far as the pitching carries them. It’s hard to imagine Straily building much on his 194-inning, 2.50 ERA campaign, though, and it’s not clear how much help he’ll have behind him. Franco was a weird signing: His big league resume is paper thin and he took a battering in the PCL (RIP) in 2019. He’s a bit of an underwhelming addition, and that’s a missed opportunity for a team that looks short in other areas. The jumbled middle of the standings are, well, a jumble, and there’s a chance Lotte gets hot and winds up near the top of the pile. On talent though, this looks like a .500 club and I have them on the wrong side of the bubble in my mock bracket.

Kia Tigers
2020 Finish: 6/10
2021 Prediction: 8/10
Former Big Leaguers: Preston Tucker 터커, Aaron Brooks, Daniel Mengden
Three Names You Should Learn: Hyoung-woo Choi 최형우, Sun-bin Kim, Won-joon Choi 최원준
Ephemera: Manager Matt Williams gifted wine to the opposing manager before each series in his first spin through the league, a gesture that was reciprocated on Kia’s second sweep of the circuit.

Why they might win it all: Kia’s foreign talent is pretty good. Tucker may be the best hitter in the league this season. High fastballs were his kryptonite in the majors, but in Korea he mostly fouls them off; eventually, pitchers throw something else, usually to their detriment. Brooks was one of the best starters in the league until his family was involved in a horrific car accident back home, which ended his season (everyone lived, but his two-year-old son had some serious injuries). He’s back, and between him and Mengden, the top of the rotation should be nasty.

Beyond that, well, Hyoung-woo Choi’s got an amazing eye and, uh, the younger Choi hit .326 as a 23-year-old, which is good, and, hmm, never bet against Matt Williams in the playoffs? That last part doesn’t sound right…

What will likely happen: Kia’s got the stars-and-scrubs thing going and they’re running pretty short on stars. Longtime ace Hyun-jong Yang is now with Texas. Choi the elder is basically the Edgar Martinez of the KBO, but even Edgar got old eventually and he might have had better wheels, too. A couple of other players had decent seasons that were either out of nowhere (younger Choi) or from players who are also getting up there in years (Ji-hwan Na).

Choi’s vice grip on the DH slot has ramifications down the roster. Na isn’t anyone’s idea of a left fielder, but Kia has to get his bat in the lineup somehow, and he’s not the only one faking it out there in the field. The Tigers had the league’s worst defense last year and nobody’s any younger this go around. That’s a bad fit for a league that makes quite a bit more contact than MLB does, particularly with the departures of Yang and Drew Gagnon 가뇽 — the team’s top two strikeout pitchers in the rotation.

All in all, the team is somewhat well encapsulated by reliever Sang-sam Hong 홍상삼, who both walked and struck out more than a batter per inning in 2020. Both are talented in some ways, good to occasionally rubberneck, but neither belongs in the playoffs. I have Kia as a low-variance eighth-place team.

Samsung Lions
2020 Finish: 8/10
2021 Prediction: 9/10
Former Big Leaguers: Ben Lively 라이블리, David Buchanan 뷰캐넌, Jose Pirela
Three Names You Should Learn: Ja-wook Koo 구자욱, Dong-Yub Kim 김동엽, Chae-heung Choi 최채흥
Ephemera: Did someone order pizza?

Why they might win it all: Divine intervention isn’t required for the Lions to nab the title, but it would help a lot. The foreign players are just okay, the lineup is a walking regression candidate even with the addition of Jae-il Oh, and the pitching staff is too reliant on young 20-somethings who top out in the mid-80s. The club’s recent youth movement has borne some fruit, but not enough for realistic contention.

What will likely happen: The Lions are in a similar situation as the Texas Rangers. Neither team is terrible, and both have a few watchable young players, potentially even a future star or two. But as with the Rangers, it’s hard to see this team reaching .500 now and there’s no clear roadmap to the next competitive window. Meanwhile, the sheer volume of young contributors is impressive in number, but only a couple of them look like they’ll make good. Choi, for instance, is the kind of homegrown pitcher to build a staff around, but the rest of the young pitchers mostly lack the arm strength to compete at the highest (Korean) level.

It’s a similar story on the other side of the ball. I am hoping that against all odds, 80-speed and 80 pound (only a slight exaggeration) Ji-chan Kim 김지찬 can hit enough to play every day, but “against all odds” is the critical part here. Ja-wook Koo may have the talent to be a major-league extra outfielder, but there’s precious little support around him and Oh. Sadly, former Rays prospect Hak-Ju Lee is a below average bat even in the KBO. There’s a chance that the foreign players prove the best version of themselves, and the Lions threaten for a playoff spot, but eighth or ninth place seems far more likely.

Hanwha Eagles
2020 Finish: 10/10
2021 Prediction: 10/10
Three Names You Know: Ryon Healy, Ryan Carpenter, Nick Kingham 킹엄
Three Names You Should Learn: Eun-won Jung 정은원, uh… these are already stretches.
Ephemera: At least the stuffed animals had a good view last year.

Why they might win it all: They won’t.

What will likely happen: Hanwha, Hanwha, Hanwha. After a startling 2018 run saw the Eagles end an 11 year playoff drought (you’d think that would be hard to do when half the league makes the postseason, but I digress) Hanwha has returned to its customary position at the butt end of the standings. It’s an actual small market team: located in an old industrial city, the Eagles have a creaky home park, a relatively small budget, and, to be kind, modest expectations most years.

The 2020 Eagles were the worst KBO team since the 2003 Lotte Giants went 39-91. The core of the team aged overnight, the foreign players were all disappointments, and there were few fresh-faced youngsters ready to fill the void. They lost 18 games in a row and at one point demoted several starters to the minors as punishment for poor play.

Worst of all, there’s not much reason to think this year will go any better. Healy is a nice pickup, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he won the home run crown. But Carpenter and Kingham seem like underwhelming options; the former was just adequate in the Taiwanese League and the latter missed almost all of 2021 with an injury. Getting a replacement pitcher midseason is a pain in the rump, so you really want to put your best foot forward on those signings, and I don’t think Hanwha did here. It’s hard to see this club finishing anywhere but last.





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