The Remaking of a Pitcher in the KBO: A Conversation with Josh Lindblom, Part 1

With so much attention focused upon the Korea Baseball Organization right now, it’s helpful to find points of reference, not only players from major league organizations who have gone over to South Korea to escape the Quad A life of bouncing up and down between the minors and majors but also those who have rejoined MLB. One who has done so while upgrading the quality of his baseball life is Josh Lindblom 린드블럼. A 2008 second-round pick by the Dodgers out of Purdue University, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound righty spent parts of four seasons in the majors (2011-14) with four different teams, albeit with diminishing returns. Twice he was traded for former All-Stars, namely Shane Victorino (in a Dodgers-Phillies deal) and Michael Young (in a Phillies-Rangers swap).

After the 2014 season, Lindblom signed with the KBO’s Lotte Giants, and quickly found a level of success that had eluded him stateside. He went 13-10 with a 3.56 ERA (142 ERA+) and 6.5 WAR in 2015 (advanced stats via Statiz), and while he wasn’t as strong in ’16 (10-13, 5.29 ERA, 99 ERA+, 2.7 WAR), he returned to the States on a minor-league deal with the Pirates. Unfortunately, he scuffled during a brief major league stint, and was released in mid-July. He returned to the Lotte Giants on a midseason deal, and helped the team to its first playoff appearance since 2012 by going 5-3, with a 3.72 ERA (136 ERA+) and 2.3 WAR in 72 innings.

From there, Lindblom landed a one-year, $1.45 million deal with the Doosan Bears and emerged as one of the top pitchers in the entire KBO, going 15-4 with league bests in ERA (2.88), ERA+ (175), and WAR (6.8). After re-signing for $1.77 million for 2019, he followed that up with a similarly outstanding campaign, going 20-3, with a 2.59 ERA (164 ERA+) and 6.9 WAR. The Bears, who finished second in 2018 and lost the Korean Series to the SK Wyverns, won it all in ’19, and Lindblom was voted the league’s MVP; in both years, he won the circuit’s Choi Dong-won Award, as the KBO’s top pitcher. Now 32 years old, he parlayed his success abroad into a three-year, $9.125 million-plus-incentives deal to start for the Brewers — the kind of security he’s never had before.

Lindblom’s analytically-driven evolution is already in the wheelhouse of the FanGraphs readership. While the COVID-19 pandemic has forestalled his official return to MLB, his insights into his time in the KBO are particularly relevant given the league’s new broadcast deal with ESPN. On Monday, I spoke to him about his time in Korea, his journey as a pitcher, and his activity during the shutdown for a two-part Q&A. This is a lightly edited transcript of the first half 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 have you been doing to stay in shape during the shutdown?

Josh Lindblom: I’m lucky, I’ve got some stuff at my house and could pretty much continue with the workouts I was doing. But not throwing, honestly, it’s been a challenge. I was one start away [from being ready for the season] when spring training stopped, so keeping that intensity has been really hard. 

Everyone’s dealing with that right now. But I’m just trying, to the best of my ability, to have some more high intensity throwing days. And just keep my arm in shape.

Jaffe: Who do you throw to?

Lindblom: Mr. Net! I have a net at our house and I get it up and throw into it. Usually in the offseason, when I’m here, I just go over to Purdue, and throw with the team. They’ve got the bullpen catcher and the catchers but now that they’re gone, no one’s really been around.

Jaffe: I imagine it must be harder when you’re just working with a net because you don’t have that feedback from a catcher. Replicating the intensity must be difficult.

Lindblom: It’s hard. I’ve got a pocket radar that helps just give you some objective feedback on your intensity levels. [I’m] trying to use that as much as possible for the high intensity days. Make sure that I’m at 85-90 percent of what I should be at.

Jaffe: Have you been watching the KBO stuff since the regular season started?

Lindblom: I’ve watched all the [ESPN] games. You know, it’s fun for me to watch the games because I know all the guys. I think that’s one of the hard things for fans right now. They don’t know a lot of the players. My son will wake up in the mornings, and we’ll turn the replay back on, and he’s talking about all the players, and talking about the stadium, so it’s cool to sit and watch with him. He knows everybody’s name so it’s been fun to watch with him.

Jaffe: Is there a particular team that you enjoy watching?

Lindblom: All the teams haven’t been on yet but obviously, I love watching Doosan. That Doosan Bears-LG Twins game was a lot of fun to come on and watch just because I’ve got such a good relationship with all my teammates. So talking with them after the game was neat; I was able to text back and forth with their catcher [Sei-hyok Park 박세혁], who is one of my really good friends.

NC has been on quite a bit the last week and they’re just a fun team to watch offensively. They’ve got such a good lineup and two of the best players in the league in catcher Euiji Yang 양의지 and right fielder Sung-bum Na 나성범.

Jaffe: That struck me in giving myself a crash course in the KBO; a lot of people said particularly about the Dinos that they’re a fun team to watch, with guys like the two you mentioned and Sok Min Park 박석민.

When you came up, you had some pretty good success with the Dodgers early on and then you were traded to the Phillies and seemed like you had a bit of a rough time at your successive stops. You stuck in the majors for 74 appearances in 2012 but then bounced up and down. Was there anything in particular you could point to as having caused your struggles?

Lindblom: I think a lot of it was mental. I was drafted by the Dodgers, I came up with the Dodgers, had the familiarity with the organization, with the coaching staff. And then in 2012, making all those appearances, I felt like I established myself with L.A. And then it being my first full year in the big leagues, I got traded. And you know, mentally that’s a shock. You get traded, and you’re going into a new team, and you know, walking into that team in Philly, I’ll never forget we were playing the Nationals and I walk in and first person I meet is Chase Utley, and we ride to the field together. And then I walk into the clubhouse, and I meet Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and then Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz, and arguably quite a few of those guys could be in the Hall of Fame.

So mentally it was hard. You want to prove yourself to those guys, you want to prove that they got the right guy. And then you’re there for two months and you get traded again. And then you’re with an organization for a year, and then they trade you again. I always joke around and say, I don’t know if everybody wanted me because I was being traded so much, or nobody wanted me and they’re just trying to get rid of me. So mentally, I think that had a lot to do with it, because you’re hopping around, you keep trying to prove yourself and you don’t really have an identity, because you’re pitching to make people happy rather than pitching to get outs. That I think was the primary issue.

Jaffe: How did your first opportunity to go to the KBO come about?

Lindblom: I was traded three times in [18 months], right? And then Oakland couldn’t find anybody to trade me for, so they designated me [for assignment] and Pittsburgh claimed me. During that 24-hour process, between Oakland designating me and Pittsburgh claiming me, the opportunity came up to go to Korea. Our son was born December 17, 2014 and I had been designated, I think it was like 24 hours prior, and then I get a call from my agent — we’re not six hours out of our son being delivered — he said, “Hey, you have an opportunity to go to Korea. Pittsburgh is willing to sell you, but you have to decide in the next 24 hours or the contract is gone.”

My wife and I, we were tired of being traded, tired of doing the up and down thing. And we felt like going to Korea was going to provide some stability for us as a family. Just being able to go to Korea, that was going to be in one spot. And if I was sent home, it was because I just wasn’t good. That’s what makes being in Asia really simple — if you go there and you play well, you stay. If you stink, you go home. So it provided stability in the sense that we knew where we were going to be if I performed, and financial stability as well.

Jaffe: When you first went over to Busan, did you have a hard time adapting? Or was the focus on baseball enough to keep you from being too concerned about the culture stuff?

Lindblom: Han Lee, who’s currently my agent, his job used to be like, a cultural assimilation. GSI is his agency but it was myself, Merrill Kelly 켈리, Brooks Raley 레일리, and Jim Aducci. Brooks, Merrill, and I all spent four plus years in Korea.

What the seminar did was prepare us for some cultural differences. Han’s sister is an unbelievable chef, so she prepared about every single Korean dish you can imagine, so by the time I got to Korea, I had tried all the food and I knew what I liked. Basic Korean phrases, some of the bowing, some of the hierarchal stuff, just getting used to that. So when I showed up, I had kind of gone through like a mini Korean assimilation and obviously once you get there, it’s a lot different. But I really felt like I was prepared off the field to handle a lot of the difficulties.

On the field, baseball is baseball. You go out, you make pitches, you’re successful, doesn’t matter where you’re at. But there are some cultural things beyond the field that I was prepared for. What I see with a lot of guys, when they go to Asia is that the off-the-field stuff, the frustrations of finding food, going to the grocery store, all these little things that we take for granted being in the US, those things start to bleed out onto the field. If you have a short fuse, it’s already shorter, and then you just kind of shut down. The off-the-field stuff definitely translates onto the field if you are a little bit resistant to the culture.

Jaffe: Getting back to the seminar, do most foreign-born players go through something like this?

Lindblom: I was very lucky. Han’s goal was to have all the teams use him to help prepare the players. One of his passions is helping guys make that jump and be comfortable. But we were the only four and none of the teams really do it at all, they just kind of show up. I’m pretty sure that Sung Min Kim helped prepare the Lotte guys this year, which is awesome for Dan [Straily] and Adrian [Sampson] and Dixon [Machado].

That’s honestly 90% of the battle. Everybody that goes over there is talented. Everybody can pitch, everybody can hit, they wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t. So having people in your organization, having translators that can help you off the field is such a huge part of that transition process.

Jaffe: When you’re on the field, and particularly when communicating with the catcher, is it in Korean or is he talking to you in English, or do you guys need a translator during a mound visit?

Lindblom: I had probably, in my opinion, the three top catchers in the league as my catchers. When I first got there with Lotte, I had Minho Kang 강민호, who is now with Samsung, and he’s gonna go down as one of the greatest catchers in Korean baseball history, just an iconic player. And then with Doosan I had Euiji Yang, who’s now with the NC Dinos, and then Sei-hyok Park, who I think is the best defensive catcher in the league, he’s smart. He was able to learn from a lot from Euiji, so I was really lucky.

Early on, I took a lot of time to build a relationship with those guys with a translator, talking with them about things that I do as a pitcher, things that they see that I do. And then after building that relationship, we really didn’t need a translator, they could give me a little look and do something with their body to let me know what I was doing, some nonverbal communication. I probably made 50-60 starts with Minho, 20-30 with Euiji, and then 20-30 with Sei-hyok. It’s like any other relationship even in the US. You just get to know those guys and they know you like the back of their hand, it’s just like some weird symbiotic relationship you’re able to develop with catchers. It was pretty neat.

Jaffe: You had a couple of pretty strong seasons for Lotte, then went back to Pittsburgh to start 2017. What brought you back? Were they strongly pursuing you, or was it that you just felt like you wanted to get back to the States to have that opportunity?

Lindblom: In 2016, I was terrible with Lotte. I was horrible, and about three-quarters of the way through the year, my wife was pregnant with our third child, and she was diagnosed in Korea with a congenital heart defect. So we knew that [our daughter] was going to have an open heart surgery within the first week of her life in the offseason. She was born in October, and we just decided as a family that me going back to Korea wasn’t going to fit, not knowing how our daughter was going to respond, not knowing — there’s a succession of surgeries, so she’s had two open heart surgeries, and she’s three years old. We needed to stay together.

So the only team that I really would have signed with was Pittsburgh because their Triple-A team was in Indianapolis, which is an hour from our house. So, randomly it happened where they had heard that I was coming back, and I was completely cool with being in Triple-A all year. Austin Meadows was there, Tyler Glasnow was there, Clay Holmes — a lot of those guys that were on that major league team were in Triple-A.

So it was neat kind of taking on a role and helping those guys out just because they’re so talented. I was completely proud of being in Triple-A all year, and then the opportunity came to where I had thrown well enough to get a call up. And then halfway through the year, after I was designated, the opportunity came for me to go back to Korea. And at that time, Monroe was doing really well and we just decided that it was something that I could do, so I signed and went back for the two and a half months of the season. I showed up and we were out of the playoffs — I think we’re in sixth or seventh place — and we played really, really well after I got there. We got into the playoffs and ended up getting beat by the NC Dinos in the Semi-Playoffs.

Jaffe: Then you decided to stay and signed with Doosan. How did that come about?

Lindblom: That’s a really, really long story and probably a whole other story. The short version is that the contract I had was supposed to release my rights from Lotte and make me a free agent, and they held on to them and we went through like a three-year court battle with them — we ended up winning the case. So when I went back, there were some stipulations I had in my contract that at the end of the year, I was going to be a free agent. I could sign with anybody I wanted in Korea.

Jaffe: You land with Doosan and they’ve obviously been a powerhouse team in recent years, and you were even better. Did anything significant change between that first stint and the second in terms of your performance and your arsenal?

Lindblom: In 2016, I was so bad that I stopped doing some things that made me successful, primarily throwing strikes and commanding my fastball, and part of that was mechanical. Going back to Pittsburgh, [pitching coach] Ray Searage, [pitching coordinator] Scott Mitchell, those guys helped me get back to what made me me.

And then in 2017, I was able to have some success in Korea that built my confidence up, and I just carried that through 2018 and 2019. At that time with Lotte, we played good baseball in the second half, but our defense wasn’t very good, so you’re going out and trying to do too much. With Doosan, our defense was awesome. Top to bottom, we had one of the better, if not the best, defenses in the league. So there are a lot of factors that I think aided in my success.

Obviously people want to point to the fact that I started throwing a split, but I started throwing that in 2015. If there was anything arsenal-wise, it was changing my slider to more of a cutter, which helped me get lefties out a lot better, helped me neutralize some of the left-handed bats in that league.

Jaffe: When you’re changing the slider to the cutter, is that just a grip thing? Or is it more than that?

Lindblom: I would say a grip change along with a mentality change. I’m just trying to throw it as hard as I could. And then try to have as little break as possible just to get off the barrel. I wasn’t thinking swing and miss, I was thinking get off the barrel and induce weak contact. And having something coming in to a lefty also opened up away, which is why my split, I think, started to play better because now I’m covering what would be an up-and-in quadrant to a left handed hitter and then down-and-away, and that spread made it a lot harder for a left-handed hitter to cover.

Jaffe: Was this self-directed? Or was it on advice from coaches and teammates?

Lindblom: A lot of it was self-directed. I wanted to see where I needed to improve, I wanted to see how I could get better. Just going back watching videos, seeing places that I wasn’t very good. Each year I picked one thing and I just worked really, really hard at that. Between 2016 and 2017, I was getting my mechanics back and my command back. Between 2017 and 2018, it was really dialing my cutter and commanding it, with a consistent break.

And then between 2018 and 2019, I was introduced to some of the analytical stuff with Rapsodo and my spin rates. I ditched my two-seam in favor of a four-seam, just because I have an ability to spin my fastball at a high RPM. That allowed me to pitch up in the zone with my four-seam and then use the split down to kind of spread hitters’ sight out a little more. So each offseason, it was one thing that I kind of locked in on to improve upon.

Jaffe: I was just about to get to the analytics stuff, because I saw that you mentioned spin rate. Were there any particular resources, equipment, reading or any particular communications you had with other players that kind of pointed you in that direction?

Lindblom: We had a Rapsodo with Doosan — it was kind of funny. I’d thrown alone in the offseason. And obviously your numbers are going to be off because you’re not throwing at 100%. So we order the Rapsodo, I use it all spring and my spin rate numbers were higher, but they released the Rapsodo 2.0 update and ours became essentially a really expensive brick.

It actually wasn’t until we got into the season when I had access to Trackman data. Our analytics guy in Doosan is like, ‘Hey, your spin rate is pretty high.’ So I start looking at these numbers and my four-seam spin rate is between 2,500-2,600 and so I get on Brooks Baseball and some of the other analytics websites, and I start looking at these guys’ spin rates and I’m like, ‘Hey, my spin rate would be like top 10 average on a four-seam in major league baseball. Maybe I just need to start throwing this all the time.’

Then Dan Aucoin, who works at Driveline (I think he still does), he did a pitch analysis for me, that was super helpful. Ways that I could use my pitches, zones and quadrants where my pitches were more successful, and then I just kind of had this broad brushstroke. These are the pitches I have, here’s how I can use them to be more successful, and obviously the success kind of spoke for itself.

In Part 2, Lindblom offers a closer look into the KBO…

We hoped you liked reading The Remaking of a Pitcher in the KBO: A Conversation with Josh Lindblom, Part 1 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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nickolai
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nickolai

Great interview, so excited to see how Lindblom builds on his success back in the MLB. If baseball ever starts here again, that is.