The Remaking of a Pitcher in the KBO: A Conversation with Josh Lindblom, Part 2

Earlier this week, 32-year-old Brewers righty Josh Lindblom 린드블럼 spoke to me about the winding path of his career in MLB and the Korea Baseball Organization. Drafted by the Dodgers in the second round in 2008 out of Purdue, he spent parts of four seasons (2011-14) in the majors with four different teams before joining the KBO’s Lotte Giants, with whom he spent 2 1/2 seasons as a starter, interrupted only by a half-season stint in the Pirates’ organization. Returning to South Korea with the powerhouse Doosan Bears, and armed with a wider repertoire and some insights gained via analytics, he won the Choi Dong-won Award, as the circuit’s top pitcher, in both 2018 and ’19, and took home MVP honors in the latter season while helping the Bears win the Korean Series.

Lindblom parlayed his success abroad into a three-year, $9.125 million-plus-incentives deal to start for the Brewers, and while his official return to MLB is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his insights into his own career and his time in the KBO are most welcome. This is a lightly edited transcript of the second 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: With your back and forth between MLB and the KBO, you’ve obviously seen a lot of evolution in this, but how would you say the KBO’s use of analytics and technology compares to Major League Baseball?

Josh Lindblom: The biggest difference is application. They have the information, but they don’t have the people to apply it. And that’s the biggest thing, not knowing how to use it. Some teams have sent people to Driveline to help learn this technology, so I think they have all the information that Major League Baseball has, but it’s a matter of finding people that understand the data, and can help the players apply that data.

I knew very little about the data. I mean, the extent of my knowledge was that I had a high spin rate, so that meant let’s try to pitch at the top of the zone a little more. And then I’m trying to teach our analytics guy. So if that tells you anything… [laughs].

Jaffe: In your two stops, are there any players that you were particularly close with? Both foreign-born and Korean?

Lindblom: All the foreign guys are close, just because you’re going through similar stuff. When Merrill [Kelly, who spent 2015-18 pitching for the SK Wyverns] was there, Merrill and I were really close. Jamie Romak 로맥, who’s with SK [since 2017], we’re still really close. Had a lot of dinners with those guys after games. Just everyone around the league — Jake Brigham 브리검, Tyler Wilson 윌슨, Casey Kelly 켈리, Jared Hoying 호잉, Chad Bell 채드벨 — there really isn’t anybody that wasn’t close. We had a group chat between all of us. You’re just so close, because you’re going through a similar experience. So the foreign guys really connect with one another more than you would in the U.S.

Jaffe: You mentioned your former catchers [Minho Kang 강민호 with the Lotte Giants, and Euiji Yang 양의지 and Sei-hyok Park 박세혁 with the Doosan Bears, discussed in Part 1]. What other players in the KBO impressed you most during your time there? Teammates or opponents, guys that audiences should be looking for.

Lindblom: So this is who I’d go with, team-by-team:

Kiwoom obviously, has ByungHo Park 박병호, who played in the U.S. Kiwoom also has some really, really good young talent. Jung-hoo Lee 이정후, who hits at the top of their lineup and plays outfield for them, he probably has some of the best bat-to-ball skills that I’ve ever seen for a kid who’s 21 years old. Just an unbelievable hitter. Ha-seong Kim 김하성, their shortstop, is very, very good as well. I think he’s going to be posted after the season.

Doosan’s Jae-hwan Kim 김재환 was looking to come to the U.S. last year [he was posted in December but failed to reach an agreement with a major league team], another great, great talent. SK’s Jeong Choi 최정, their third baseman, has been one of the great Korean players over the last decade or so. KT’s Baek-ho Kang 강백호 is 20 years old. He’s got a lot of power, won Rookie of the Year his first year [2018], just a solid solid hitter.

Samsung’s Ja-wook Koo 구자욱 is a guy that played on a really, really good Samsung team in 2015. He’s a good talent, doesn’t have as much protection anymore, so he’s got to do a little bit more, which kind of hurts him a little bit. Hanhwa has a second baseman, Eun-won Jung 정은원, who has a lot of potential. Last year, he played really, really well in the first half, but he just didn’t string the whole season together. I think he got hurt, maybe, but he is a kid that can be really, really good. KIA is in a situation where they’re just really old. Hyoung-woo Choi 최형우, their DH is good. They have a kid named Chan-ho Park 박찬호, not the old pitcher.

Jaffe: I heard that name the other day. I was like, “Wait a second!”

Lindblom: He’s back! He’s back and he’s stealing bases! Park led the league in stolen bases last year. For Lotte, Dae-Ho Lee 이대호 was in the U.S. and Se-woong Park 박세웅 is a young pitcher that when I was there had a ton of talent. He was hurt [in 2018-19], so I’m hoping that he can throw well this year and be healthy. Lotte’s weird, man. I mean, I honestly I don’t know how they’re so bad [the Giants went 48-93-2 last year]. You look at their lineup and their one through six is as good as anybody in the league. They’ve got Ah-seop Son 손아섭, who’s an awesome left-handed hitter. They’ve got Junwoo Jeon 전준우, who’s one of the top bats in the league. They just got KIA’s second baseman, Chi-hong An 안치홍. So you look at their lineup and it’s not a fun lineup to face. I don’t know how they haven’t had more success. A lot of it’s probably their pitching.

We talked about NC [from Part 1: “̌They’ve got such a good lineup and two of the best players in the league in catcher Euiji Yang and right fielder Sung-bum Na 나성범]. Chang-mo Koo 구창모 is a really good young lefty, pretty nasty, lots of swings and misses. He started the third game [against Samsung on May 7] and struck out eight. LG as a team is very good top to bottom. They don’t have the power that some of the other teams have but each guy one through nine will give a quality at-bat. Hyun Soo Kim 김현수, who played for the Orioles and Phillies, is a top-five player in the league every year. Career .300+ average, disciplined, professional at-bats. Eun-seong Chae 채은성 is a legit hitter, one of the best hitters in the league the last three years. Very underrated and under-appreciated guy in the league.

Josh Lindblom’s KBO Players to Watch
Team Player Pos 2019 Stats 2019 WAR
Doosan Bears Jae-hwan Kim LF .283/.362/.434, 15 HR, 118 wRC+ 3.5
Hanwha Eagles Eun-won Jung 2B .262/.317/.374, 8 HR, 90 wRC+ 2.1
KIA Tigers Hyoung-woo Choi DH .300/.413/.485, 17 HR, 149 wRC+ 4.2
KIA Tigers Chan-Ho Park SS “.260/.300/.317, 39 SB, 70 wRC+ 0.9
Kiwoom Heroes Jung-hoo Lee OF .336/.386/.456, 6 HR, 134 wRC+ 4.9
Kiwoom Heroes Byungho Park 1B .280/.398/.560, 33 HR, 160 wRC+ 5.5
Kiwoom Heroes Ha-seong Kim SS .307/.389/.491, 19 HR, 33 SB, 142 wRC+ 7.2
KT Wiz Baek-ho Kang 1B .336/.416/.495, 13 HR, 153 wRC+ 4.7
LG Twins Hyun-soo Kim OF .286/.358/.442, 11 HR, 120 wRC+ 3.6
LG Twins Eun-seong Chae RF .315/.358/.434, 12 HR, 118 wRC+ 3.2
Lotte Giants Dae-ho Lee 1B .285/.355/.435, 16 HR, 117 wRC+ 1.8
Lotte Giants Se-woong Park RHP 4.20 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 16.7% K% 1.0
Lotte Giants Ah-seop Son RF .295/.360/.400, 10 HR, 112 wRC+ 2.8
Lotte Giants Junwoo Jeon LF .301/.359/.481, 22 HR, 130 wRC+ 4.2
NC Dinos Chang-Mo Koo LHP 3.20 ERA 3.77 FIP, 25.4% k% 2.7
NC Dinos Eu-ji Yang C .354/.438/.574, 20 HR, 179 wRC+ 6.7
NC Dinos Sung Bum Na RF .366/.443/.645, 4 HR, 199 wRC+ 1.5
Samsung Lions Ja-wook Koo OF .267/.327/.444, 15 HR, 109 wRC+ 2.0
SK Wyverns Jeong Choi 3B .292/.399/.519, 29 HR, 152 wRC+ 6.3

Jaffe: Let’s talk ballparks. Do any particular ones stand out, whether for the crowds or the aesthetics or being particularly easy or difficult places to pitch?

Lindblom: NC’s new ballpark [Changwon NC Park, which opened last year] is awesome. It’s really, really cool. The All-Star game was there last year and they did an unbelievable job with it. Jamsil, my home stadium with Doosan, on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday when you’re playing anybody is an unbelievable atmosphere. You play LG on a weekend or Lotte or Kia or Hanhwa, it’s sold out with 25,000-30,000 people, those are really fun.

Some of the best atmospheres are in Sajik with Lotte. When that place is packed, it’s fun to play there, the Lotte fans are crazy passionate; they might have a little more liquid courage than a lot of the other fans, which might aid that. What’s crazy is that the only reason anybody goes to Sajik is for the baseball game. It’s a small community, there’s not a whole lot there. The baseball stadium just kind of sits in the middle of this small city in Busan. It makes for a really, really fun weekend.

Jaffe: If you had to rank the KBO quality of play in the areas of pitching, defense, and hitting, which is closest to major league caliber, which is furthest away would you say?

Lindblom: Hitting for sure is the closest. I think that’s pretty evident. And you know, a lot of it plays in with the pitching, there’s a correlation between if you don’t have good pitching, the hitting’s going to be better, but definitely, all these guys can hit. The farthest from major league quality, I would say, is defense.

The hardest thing is that it’s not one-for-one. You can’t just say, the KBO is a Triple-A level — you can’t do it. I’m sure everybody was watching Sunday, May 10. Those bullpens just exploded. [In the LG Twins-NC Dinos game, the latter’s bullpen allowed seven eighth-inning runs, blowing a 7-3 lead en route to a 10-8 loss]. You get into the fourth and fifth starters, and you’re looking at guys that are bullpen guy, or young guys, and those games make for some true KBO games.

Jaffe: Is there anything that American audiences should be watching for when they watch KBO games? Obviously they don’t have the crowds right now because of the restrictions, but in terms of style of play, or strategy or anything else that you think they should be keying upon?

Lindblom: It’s very similar to an American style of play. There’s more of an emphasis on driving the ball, home runs, doubles. You aren’t going to see a ton of small ball. There’s going to be some bunting in some situations but for the most part, guys are going to swing away.

It’s fun to think along with managers sometimes because usually whatever you’re thinking is going to happen is going to be the exact opposite. So that’s kind of fun. There’s some different cultural things that you’ll see. Defensive changes in the middle of an inning. Quick hooks on bullpen guys. There’s just some stuff that’ll blow your mind. In the five years I was there, I was still seeing stuff I’d never seen before in a baseball game. It makes for some fun things to talk about, for sure.

Jaffe: Can you give me give me one? Like just one weird thing or something?

Lindblom: From a game-plan standpoint, the LG-NC game earlier this week, the LG pitcher had a quick first inning, but in the second inning, he ended up giving up five or six runs. I was on Twitter and fans couldn’t believe that the manager was leaving him in. Having been in the league and seen this, what happens is that as a manager, you can’t pull a pitcher early in that situation because it messes up the rest of your week. In that scenario, usually on a Thursday, it will be the third game of the week. Your foreign guys have already thrown. So if your foreign guy throws on Tuesday, the next time his spot comes around is on Sunday. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, you don’t know how many innings you’re going to get out of your starters, so you might see a starting pitcher have to wear seven, eight, nine runs in two or three innings from the sheer standpoint that we don’t know what we’re going to get out of our starters the next few days.

So that’s just something that’s a little different. You have to understand that a lot of the pitching decisions that are made throughout the course of the week depend on who’s coming up next in the rotation, so it’s not as big of a deal on Thursday or early in the week, if your foreign starter, a guy that you’re relying to go six or seven innings, is throwing the next day, but if you have your four and five domestic starters, then the starting pitcher might kind of be hung out to dry, which is going to be different in the major league scenario where no one’s giving up nine runs in two innings, that’s just not happening.

Jaffe: I think that was Casey Kelly, wasn’t it, that was getting knocked around that LG game that you’re thinking of?

Lindblom: Yeah, but in that scenario, you’ve got the next day off, on Monday, so you can go to the bullpen a little bit earlier. But if Casey’s pitching on a Tuesday, he might have to stay out there for another two innings.

Jaffe: While you were over in Korea, American players like Eric Thames 테임즈 and Merrill Kelly 켈리, who’d never really gotten a foothold in Major League Baseball, flourished in the KBO and then came back and have had significant success over here. Did that make it easier for you to visualize a path back to MLB yourself or did you have other role models in mind when you were thinking about your next opportunity?

Lindblom: Those guys going back definitely gave guys hope that, “I can come here, I can perform, and I can earn an opportunity to go back,” but honestly, I was fully ready to finish my career out in Asia. If you’d have asked me last year what I was going to do after the 2019 season, I’d have said that I was going to go to Japan and play. I knew mentally that if I had one foot in Asia and one foot in America, I wasn’t going to be successful. So my mindset was that I was fully expecting to finish my career in Asia. Some guys might not want to do that, but that was what worked for me.

Having seen those guys have success, not only in Korea but also in the U.S., guys know it’s not a death sentence on their career to go to Asia, guys can go over there and they can get better. They can have an opportunity to play every day, or get the ball every five, six days, and then from that just continue to grow and earn another opportunity to come back because there are good players there right now.

Jaffe: So you signed with the Brewers, a three-year deal that guarantees you $9.125 million and can grow to $18 million with incentives. Did you have multiple offers to choose from?

Lindblom: I had a few other offers from some different teams [per MLB Trade Rumors, the Astros, Blue Jays, Cubs, and Tigers were among the teams reportedly interested ] but after going to the Winter Meetings, sitting down with [Brewers general manager] David Stearns and the rest of the front office, they had a plan for me. And they didn’t think that my development was done. It was just an awesome fit with that organization.

Jaffe: Did you talk to Eric Thames at all about his experience in Milwaukee?

Lindblom: I have not [since signing]. I’ve talked with Eric a little bit, I know that he loved it, you can just tell from videos. It would have been awesome to be able to play with Eric, coming back. He’s an awesome person, awesome guy to be around. We had many a dinner after games in Korea. I’m so happy for Eric, happy for all the success that he’s had.

I tell people all the time that Eric was the best baseball player that I’ve ever seen in 2016. It was awesome to watch, but not trying to pitch against.

Jaffe: What are you hearing now about the plans to restart spring training and to try to move forward with the season?

Lindblom: Man, I wish I had something to tell you, I really do. I don’t know. I’m not just saying that because I don’t want to divulge any information to you. I wish that I was hearing something more concrete. I think that’s part of the frustration for a lot of guys right now is that we just don’t know. We don’t really have any dates to work towards.

I’m over the whole quarantine baseball life. I’m tired of working out in my garage. I’m tired of throwing into a net. With the KBO coming back, I want to compete. I want to play again, I want to be around my teammates. What’s made it hard for me is that I want something to work towards. And I think all the players do. Mentally, it’s been hard to not know, to not have a date, even if it’s a tentative date. To know that there’s an end in sight, or I guess it would be more of a beginning in sight.

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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Great stuff. Best of luck to Josh with the BrewCrew.