ZiPS KBO Update: Dinos No Fluke, Eagles Have (Crash) Landed

Back before the Korean Baseball Organization’s Opening Day, I altered the methodology ZiPS uses to project Major League Baseball standings to do the same for the KBO’s 144-game season, as it was nearly the only game in town for viewers in the United States. Because projections aren’t written in stone, and are constantly in flux as actual on-field performance eviscerates old projections, I also update the ZiPS’ in-season methodology. After all, ZiPS is a large set of algorithms, not a time machine; the future never exactly matches the prognostications.

One interesting note is that offense has shot way up in the KBO in 2020. After dejuicing the baseballs for 2019, the league’s ERA dropped from 5.17 in 2018 to 4.17 last year. Nearly a third of the way through this season, that ERA is back up to 4.80, almost entirely due to a bit of a re-explosion of home runs. As far as I know, they haven’t re-juiced the baseball, so it will be interesting to see if this keeps up, and if so, do we see similar results in Nippon Professional Baseball or MLB, possibly as a result of pitchers having less time to prepare for the season?

But enough of that; let’s get to the updated projections.

2020 ZiPS KBO In-Season Projections, 6/22
Team W L GB PCT 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th Playoffs
NC Dinos 88 56 .611 42.1% 25.7% 17.3% 9.9% 3.7% 98.7%
Kiwoom Heroes 85 59 3 .590 26.3% 26.5% 22.2% 15.1% 6.9% 97.0%
Doosan Bears 84 60 4 .583 20.1% 24.5% 23.5% 18.2% 8.9% 95.3%
LG Twins 81 63 7 .563 9.8% 17.1% 22.0% 24.4% 15.3% 88.7%
Kia Tigers 74 70 14 .514 1.6% 5.1% 10.2% 17.6% 27.2% 61.7%
Lotte Giants 67 77 21 .465 0.1% 0.5% 1.9% 5.4% 12.5% 20.4%
Samsung Lions 66 78 22 .458 0.0% 0.3% 1.4% 4.4% 10.9% 17.0%
KT Wiz 64 80 24 .444 0.0% 0.1% 0.7% 2.7% 7.4% 10.9%
SK Wyverns 64 80 24 .444 0.0% 0.2% 0.7% 2.3% 7.2% 10.4%
Hanwha Eagles 48 96 40 .333 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

The NC Dinos have stomped over the rest of the league through the first six weeks of the season and clearly look like the T-Rex on campus. ZiPS saw the Dinos as a good team coming into the season, but not the clear favorite they’ve looked like so far. Euiji Yang’s .928 OPS isn’t a surprise; ZiPS projected an .917 and had him forecast as one of the best players in the league. But ZiPS did not see Jin Sung Kang 강진성 coming at all; he’s hitting .412/.459/.739 after being essentially a role player up until this point of his career. Sure, the .417 BABIP will come down, but how can you not be excited about a guy who has hit in every count, including an unheard-of OPS above .700 after 0-2 counts? Similarly, Chang Mo Koo 구창모, who ZiPS projected as merely competent, is striking out just under 10 batters per nine innings, and at just 23, you have to think that MLB teams are highly intrigued. Aaron Altherr 알테어 has taken well to KBO pitching, with an OPS over .900 so far, better than the computer expected.

There are fewer big surprises on the Doosan Bears. Jae Il Oh 오재일 and Jose Miguel Fernandez 페르난데스 were projected hit well, while Joo Hwan Choi 최주환 was projected to have a bounce-back season. That’s largely what has happened, though the raw numbers are higher with the league scoring far more runs than ZiPS expected overall. ZiPS is concerned about the strikeouts, but still sees Jae Hwan Kim playing better than he has so far; his homers have recovered from his 2019 fall, but his batting average has kept his OPS low. Chris Flexen 플렉센 projected as one of the strongest imports this year and he’s matched those expectations.

Roberto Ramos 라모스 got a fairly ordinary, but perfectly respectable, .267/.347/.475 forecase leading up to his KBO debut. He’s eviscerated that number, hitting .362/.435/.724 for the LG Twins with 13 home runs in the early going. The team still doesn’t have a ton of power depth, with Ramos the only hitter with more than five homers so far. The pitching has largely disappointed, with Casey Kelly 켈리 checking in with an ERA of 5.00 compared to his 3.47 projection, and Tyler Wilson 윌슨 having a similar drop off from his 2019 season. ZiPS doesn’t buy Hyun Soo Kim 김현수’s .345 batting average, but he’s always been an on-base machine, even during the year in the US when the Orioles actually used him properly.

The Kiwoom Heroes are still playing well, but thanks to NC’s surge, they’re no longer the favorites that ZiPS projected at the start of the season. The team leads the KBO in ERA, largely on the backs of the front end of their bullpen and Eric Jokisch 요키시, who has a 1.63 ERA after nine starts. Won Tae Choi 최원태 has already allowed more home runs than he did in all of 2019, Hyun Hee Han 한현희 has seen his strikeout rate fall, and Jake Brigham 브리검, projected for a 3.31 ERA, is currently out with an elbow injury. Jung Hoo Lee 이정후 may be the player to watch, with seven home runs already after just 14 in his first three seasons in the league. ZiPS doesn’t see him continuing to hit .381, but the power is likely real and his projection has jumped from an already-excellent .326/.384/.433 to .331/.390/.530. And Lee is still a few months from turning 22! Also remarkable for a young lefty hitter is his lack of platoon splits against southpaws; he’s at a .973 OPS and at .822 for his four-year career.

Preston Tucker 터커, superstar, feels a bit weird, but the former Astros sorta-prospect has feasted in the higher offense league this year, with 11 home runs after a total of nine in his first year in Korea. With a 1.073 OPS, he’s been Kia’s best offensive player and is well ahead of his .857 projection. The successes of Drew Gagnon 가뇽 and Aaron Brooks have made the Tigers one of the few teams in the league with a better ERA than in 2019.

ZiPS projected the Lotte Giants to improve considerably on their last-place 2019, but they’ve done even better than the 100-point jump in winning percentage ZiPS forecast, and have played nearly .500 ball this year. Dae-Ho Lee’s 이대호 aging has not come to pass, as ZiPS feared, but Chi Hong An 안치홍’s projected 2020 resurgence hasn’t either. After 21 homers in 2017 and 23 in 2018, An dropped to just five in the dejuiced 2019 and it doesn’t appear he’s anywhere near the .311/.370/.441 comeback ZiPS projected. BABIP is slightly to blame, but An doesn’t seem to be benefiting from the return of the home run, either. Dan Straily 스트레일리 has been lights out and looks to be one of the team’s best ideas. Straily’s only allowed two home runs in 55 2/3 innings, long the weakest part of his game, and that’s with home run rates shooting up around the league. At this rate, it might not be long before he’s given another shot in the US.

Samsung got Ja Wook Koo 구자욱 back from injury in the nick of time, as the offense was quite reliant on Tyler Saladino 살라디노 while Koo was on the shelf. Saladino’s a player who has always intrigued me and I think his 2018 Brewers stint is closer to the type of player he really is than his miserable 2019 major league cameo. He’s continued to add walks to his game and his .413 on-base percentage is a mile ahead of his .328 projection. ZiPS did like Saladino to hit for power, projecting 15 home runs, which seems right on target.

The KT Wiz were projected to have a solid offense and a dreadful pitching staff and that’s largely what’s transpired. ZiPS expected more progress from 21-year-old Min Kim 김민 after he cut nearly a third off his walk rate from 2018 to 2019, but he’s backslid and walked 21 batters in 24 1/3 innings. ZiPS thinks William Cuevas 쿠에바스’s 5.05 ERA is an illusion and sees him having an ERA closer to four the rest of the way, and does not see Odrisamer Despaigne 데스파이네 turning things around.

Coming into the season, ZiPS projected the SK Wyverns to cobble together enough pitching to stay competitive after losing Angel Sánchez 산체스 and Kwang Hyun Kim 김광현 to other leagues. And they’ve actually kind of been able to do that, with a team ERA of 4.71, slightly better than the league’s 4.80 average. And that’s with Nick Kingham 킹엄, the team’s opening day starter, struggling in two starts and then being shut down due to arm pain. Unfortunately, the offense has struggled despite returning most of 2019’s roster and of the team’s healthy players, only Jamie Romak 로맥 and Jeong Choi 최정 have an OPS north of .750. It got even worse for the Wyverns when Dong Min Han 한동민, seemingly getting his power back, broke his tibia while hitting .317/.368/.667; he slated to be out for at least another month. ZiPS sees positive regression for the team, but it’s likely in the category of too little, too late.

The Hanwha Eagles were projected to be the worst team in the league and that’s pretty much what’s happened. The Eagles have even underperformed their league-worst projections, and ZiPS now thinks they’re the only team in the KBO that’s been effectively eliminated from postseason contention. How bad are things? Among the qualified players, the one leading the team in OPS, Yongkyu Lee 이용규, has a .718 OPS by way of a .321 slugging percentage. Jared Hoying 호잉, who hit .284/.340/.460 for Hanwha in 2019, stands at a .194/.254/.323 line and was just waived by the team. The Eagles just signed Brandon Barnes to fulfill their Quad-A American player spot, but that’s not enough to save the team. If there’s a silver lining, it’s Warwick Saupold 서폴드 pitching just as well as in 2019, at 4-4 with a 3.39 ERA. Outside of Saupold, the team’s ERA — this is NSFW, so make sure any children or bosses are out of the room — is 6.51.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Nothing on Ricardo Pinto overperforming his peripherals (in only there was an xFIP for the KBO)?